Turn Your Meetings into Results

Author(s):

Steve Kaye, Ph.D.
Steve Kaye, Ph.D., President, Personal Quality, P.O. Box 208, Placentia, CA 92871, 888-421-1300, steve@stevekaye.com, www.stevekaye.com

84th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1999 

Abstract. Effective meetings are build upon a foundation of planning, conducted with structured activities, and guided by effective leadership. The key to success is to involve all the participants in resolving the issues. This paper shows you how.

Meetings are the dialogue of business. They provide a powerful means to find solutions, make decisions, and reach agreements. Yet, many companies waste this opportunity by holding unproductive meetings. When queried about this the executives shrug and say, "That's the way it is."

Most bad meetings occur because people treat them like social activities. They invite everyone, set out treats, and hope something good happens. Then the participants spend endless hours engaged in arguments, chit chat, and monologues that produce nothing, except a decision to call another meeting. As the participants leave the room, they often remark, "Now it's time to get back to work."

Meetings should run like a business. Here are three keys to improving the meetings in your company.

Planning. Every business activity begins with planning. Follow these steps to make sure your meetings produce the results you want.

  1. Start by writing clear, complete, specific goals for the meeting. Then test if a meeting is the best way to achieve these goals. Many meetings can be replaced by other less expensive activities. For example, e-mail, voice mail, faxes, and memos often convey information more efficiently than a meeting. Sometimes a phone call or personal visit will resolve a conflict more effectively than a meeting.

    Thus, view any suggestion to call a meeting as a challenge to save money and time by finding other ways to deal with the issue.

  2. Estimate the value of the results you want to obtain in the meeting. If a result has no value, ask yourself why you want to spend time working on it. Then design an agenda that spends time in proportion to the value of the results. That is, design the meeting like business venture to earn a positive return on your investment of time and resources. For example, if you are working on an issue worth $1,000, you may want to spend less than $500 resolving it. Obviously, spending more than the issue is worth is bad business.

  3. Prepare an agenda that contains a specific list of activities. These should guide the participants toward the results that you want. Use structured activities (described below) as much as possible, because these make a meeting more efficient. Avoid unstructured general discussions, because these seldom lead to results.

An agenda should state the activity and the time budget for that activity. For example:

9:00 Review the goals for the meeting
9:02 Collect ideas (Idea Harvest)
9:15 Discuss Ideas (Balanced Dialogue)
9:25 Prioritize ideas (Dot Voting)
9:29 Summarize results
9:30 Adjourn

Then send the agenda to the participants before the meeting so they can prepare for it. Realize that unprepared participants will spend their time (and yours') in the meeting preparing for it.

If appropriate, include instructions in the agenda on how to prepare for the meeting. For example you may tell the participants to read a report, prepare a draft of their budget, or bring 5 solutions for an issue. If you are holding a meeting at a remote site or inviting participants from out of town, you can include logistical information such as directions (and a map), lodging, restaurants, suggested attire, and local attractions. In generally, include everything that people need to know in order to attend and participate successfully in the meeting.

Some people believe that they can save time by holding meetings without preparing an agenda. This represents false efficiency. Overall, the minutes spent planning always save hours in execution. An agenda also increases your chances of maintaining control during the meeting.

Structured Activities. Structured activities are work systems that help people make methodical progress toward results. They also increase participation and keep people focused on the issue.

When people use structured activities, they produce better results in less time. Without them, a meeting is guaranteed to take longer and produce less.

Before using a new activity in your meeting, be sure to explain how it works and cite the benefits of using it.

Here are three easy, structured activities.

Activity 1: Idea Harvest: Use this activity to gather ideas.

Start the process by writing a question on a chart pad (e.g., "How can we improve customer service?"). Then everyone offers ideas while the facilitator or scribe writes them on the chart pad.

The facilitator should encourage the participants to contribute by complimenting their ideas (e.g., "That's great!" "Keep going!") and catalyze thinking by asking questions (e.g., "What would please our customers?" "How would you want to be treated?" or "What if you phoned with a complaint?")

Write down every idea, without judgment, analysis, or criticism. Negative comments (e.g., "That's a dumb idea!" "So, how would you do that?" or "We already tried that!") inhibit open, creative thinking. They also distract people into considering unrelated issues that waste time. Instead, encourage creative, divergent thinking. Seek to uncover all the possibilities.

Realize you will sort out the best ideas later, perhaps with dot voting, which is described below.

Activity 2: Balanced Dialogue. Use this activity to control and manage discussion on an issue.

In this activity, everyone speaks for an equal length of time. Begin the process by announcing the time limit or asking the group to choose a time. Ideally, the time should be short (e.g., two minutes or less). After everyone has had a turn, you can repeat the cycle or move to the next part of your agenda.

The benefits of this process are: 1) it prevents a minority from dominating the discussion, 2) it gives everyone a chance to speak their views, 3) it limits the total time spent on a discussion. In addition, the participants in my workshops tell me that this technique helps them prioritize their ideas, speak more concisely, and listen more effectively.

For this process to work, you will need a stop watch and firm enforcement. When someone's time ends, that's it. They must stop speaking, even if they are in the middle of a sentence.

The first time you use this activity, expect someone to challenge the rules. If you hold firm, however, you will find that the other participants strongly support you. It gives everyone a fair chance to participate and makes meetings go faster.

If you decide to hold an unstructured discussion, improve your control over this process with the following techniques. Start the discussion by asking a question, set a time limit for the discussion, make sure the discussion continues to focus on the issue, inject summaries of key ideas when appropriate, and ask someone to take notes during the discussion.

Activity 3: Dot Voting. Use this activity to prioritize ideas from a list of possibilities.

This activity often follows an idea harvest although you can apply it to any list of options. Give the participants one third as many dots as there are items on the list. Then ask the participants to place a dot next to those ideas that meet some specific criteria. Possible criteria include the least expensive, highest impact, or most novel. Avoid vague criteria such as "Best idea" or "The ones that you like" because these produce a nonuniform basis for voting.

Usually, I ask the participants to vote all of their dots by placing one dot next to each choice. If appropriate, you can vary the process. For example you can let the participants vote any number of dots for each choice, mark undesirable items with a "Veto Dot," or assign values to their dots that make some dots worth more than others. Recognize that these variations also increase the technique's complexity.

Instead of dots, you can ask the participants to identify their choices by placing check marks or initials next to them on the chart pad. You can also ask them to vote on ballots or call out their choices.

After everyone finishes, tally the votes for each idea. The ideas with the most choices are the most popular.

Important tip: Modify these structured activities or invent new ones to manage the meeting process. Structured activities make your meetings more efficient.

Leadership. As a leader you are responsible for creating a positive culture while making progress to complete tasks. This requires you to maintain a balance between maintaining the process of the meeting and caring for the participants needs.

Model the behavior that you expect from the participants. The participants will contribute more when you accept new ideas, treat everyone with respect, and reward divergent thinking. On the other hand, autocratic or punitive behavior scares people into silence.

Avoid introducing side issues and telling jokes. These waste time by distracting focus from the issue. Test your comments and ideas before speaking for their value in contributing to progress toward results. When you think of unrelated ideas, jot them down. If appropriate, you can mention them later or save them for other tasks.

Also avoid sarcastic or critical comments that insult others. Statements such as, "That region is filled with idiots." or "We respect everyone except people who buy that product." may offend some of the participants. If anything, it shows that you can be mean, which discourages an open, candid dialogue.

When unproductive behavior occurs, focus on changing the behavior instead of attacking the person causing it. Avoid direct commands (e.g.,"Hey you, stop that."), trick questions (e.g., "Are you trying to ruin the meeting?"), or sarcasm (e.g, "Here's another brilliant question from the company wizard.").

Instead, speak to the group. If a side conversation starts, say, "I'm having difficulty hearing the person speaking. Could we have one speaker at a time?" If the group drifts to a new issue, say, "We started working on the budget and now we seem to be talking about performance reviews. Is this what we want to be working on?"

If some of the participants seem to dominate the meeting, restore balance by using the structured activities described above. These also increase contributions from the more quite participants.

In general, use positive statements that affirm what you notice and that state what you want. As a leader you are responsible for creating a culture that produces results. You do that by first modeling the behavior that you expect from others. Then support this by describing the principles you value and by providing diplomatic feedback.

Important tip: Always react to unproductive behavior with the recognition that you could benefit from knowing more. There could be a valid reason for the activity that disturbs you. The person causing it may believe that it is based on good intentions or that person may have made a mistake. Thus, respond with courtesy and respect.

Many executives view meetings as a opportunity to observe leadership skills. When you take the time to plan, use structured activities, and then maintain a productive culture, you demonstrate effective leadership. That helps you accomplish more in both your meetings and in your career.

References

Kaye, Steve, Meetings in an Hour or Less, Personal Quality Press, 1997

Kaye, Steve, 117 Tips for Effective Meetings, Personal Quality Press, 1997

Kaye, Steve, The Managers's Pocket Guide to Effective Meetings, HRD Press, 1998

About the Author
Steve Kaye, Ph.D., shows leaders how to plan and conduct meetings that lead to success. His innovative presentations inform, inspire, and entertain. To find out how he can help you create success, call him at 888-421-1300, or check his web site at http://www.stevekaye.com


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