First-class coach

My organisation spends so much time having meetings that we never get round to implementing what we agreed in them.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Now that I'm a senior manager, should I just use e-mails and phone calls instead?

A: Meetings are the curse of many managers, consuming vast amounts of executive time (just think of the salary bill), often ineffective and even counter-productive. This is particularly true of long-established meetings, which drift away from their original purpose and accrete all sorts of barnacles in the way they are run.

Yet meetings are often necessary and, run right, can even be enjoyable for participants. Newsletters and e-mails can help spread basic information, but neither comes close to the positive effect of face-to-face contact, providing the opportunity to hear what senior managers have to say, to respond and be listened to. Managers who work internationally and rarely visit their foreign counterparts find it hard to create effective relationships, and their ability to get things done in another geography is severely limited.

The problems with meetings can be manifold: too many, too short to go deep, too long to sustain interest and energy, physically uncomfortable, wrong people attending and no useful outcome, no clear purpose, no follow-up action.

To make the meetings you're responsible for successful, I suggest you carry out a swift meetings audit, asking six questions to establish whether the meeting is needed and, if it is, how to make it effective. Make a list of all the regular, formal occasions when two or more are gathered, internal and external. The most important question is: Why? What is the real purpose of the meeting? Is it information sharing, decision-making, conveying policy, morale-boosting, promoting relationships ...? Everything else should flow from the meeting's primary goal, but often this is unclear and so elements of style and content can be at odds with each other. You may even conclude that the meeting serves no useful purpose and so fulfil your wish to abolish it.

Once you're clear on 'why', the next question is: who needs to attend for the purpose to be fulfilled? Too many onlookers can reduce the effectiveness of the meeting, as can the absence of the person who has decision-making power.

Next, the 'what' question: what should the content be? Develop a clear view of the desired outcome of the meeting and you can decide how realistic it might be to cover it in one session.

The other three questions in the audit process may seem minor but they can make the difference between an effective, enjoyable gathering and one that irritates or alienates attendees.

'How' focuses on the best methodology for the meeting. How formal is it? Does it need an agenda and documents circulated in advance? Is face-to-face contact important or could the goal be achieved by conference call?

Where to have the meeting follows. Too many meeting rooms are low-energy places, stuffy, with no natural light, cramped and furnished with chairs not made for extended sitting and a dominating table that restricts eye-contact, precludes movement and sets up confrontation. No wonder many managers prefer offsite away-days. Of course, a different location can provide perspective, but a good venue can really help focus.

The final question is 'when?': time of day, day of the week or month, and how long. It's surprising how refreshing a time-shift can be in moving out of a familiar rut. The length of a meeting is usually dictated by software diary norms (hours and half-hours) rather than time required. But we know that, unfortunately, meetings expand to fill the time allowed, so time is often wasted.

Inevitably, some meetings have to be long, but there's no reason why others can't be really short. A client of mine succeeded in liberating chunks of time from the firm's over-filled diaries by inventing the three-minute meeting to cope with the recurring need of staff for quick decisions and simple approvals. They dispensed with the need to book a room and provide coffee and biscuits. People had to be disciplined about turning up on time, but it seemed to work and made everyone more aware of time-wasting in other meetings, where people had been unpunctual.

If all this seems over-laborious, start with the least satisfactory meeting you are responsible for and sort that one out. You may be able to improve its effectiveness radically and then persuade other managers to start the meeting-audit process.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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