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Ten Pitfalls of Pitiful Meetings1and How to Fix Them

It’s Friday afternoon, and your team is filing into the conference room, mumbling and grumbling as they take their seats for yet another meeting. An hour passes and the meeting comes to a much-anticipated end, leaving everyone involved wondering why the meeting was held in the first place. After all, the usual suspects dominated the discussion, and the same ideas that came up in last week’s meeting were once again batted around. No one seemed to write anything down, and no one agreed to put anything discussed into action.

If this kind of ineffective meeting sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It’s a problem that plagues many organizations—but it’s also one that can be remedied.

In these tough economic times, every second of the work day is valuable. None of it should be wasted in meetings that seem to go nowhere or that are plagued by conflict or lack of participation. I have sat through countless meetings myself—some great, and some not-so-great. But those that weren’t so great could have been so much better with just a little more effort. If leaders know how to conduct better meetings, those meetings can actually become time well-spent—time that increases employee productivity, participation, and innovation.

The question of productivity is a huge issue when it comes to meetings. According to a Microsoft survey of over 38,000 employees, almost 70% felt that the average 5.6 hours they spent each week in meetings were unproductive. Another survey conducted by OfficeTeam had 28% of its 150 senior executives responding that meetings are a waste of time. Furthermore, 45% of respondents said they believed their employees could be more productive if meetings were banned at least one day a week.

In too many companies, meetings have become a way for leaders and their employees to simply go through the motions. If a new initiative is being implemented or new product ideas are needed, the feeling from management is often, “Well, let’s have a meeting. At least it will seem like we are doing something.” Unfortunately, not enough thought goes into how to conduct those meetings. Having a meeting, in and of itself, is not a bad idea. In fact, meetings can be the most engaging and thought-provoking times of the day for leaders and team members alike. The key is avoiding those pitfalls that sink a meeting’s productivity.

If it’s time for a meetings overhaul at your organization, read my ten common meeting pitfalls and how you can fix them:

What’s the point? A common problem with many meetings is that they’re scheduled with seemingly no clear objective in mind. If that’s your dilemma, run through a pre-meeting checklist before putting one on everyone’s schedule. Ask yourself whether the meeting is even necessary. Could the information you want to provide be just as easily presented in an email? What do you want to accomplish with the meeting? Will reaching that accomplishment really require a group decision? If you ask yourself these questions and decide that you do need to have the meeting, next consider who should attend. Design an agenda for the meeting. And clearly communicate any prep work that needs to be done by the participants beforehand.

Being clear about the meeting’s objectives will ensure a greater likelihood of it being effective than anything else you can do. Simply answering, “So why are we meeting?” before everyone is gathered in the conference room will help you ensure meetings are productive for everyone and will also help you avoid lost opportunity cost and drain employee motivation.

Where’s the agenda? Remember the last time you actually received an agenda in advance of a meeting? Likely, you immediately had a higher perception of whether that meeting was going to be a waste of time or not. Once you know who will be attending the meeting, you need to finalize the agenda. A quality meeting agenda includes:

• The date, time, and location of the meeting
• The meeting’s objectives
• Three to six agenda items, accompanied by how long they’ll take to discuss and who the discussion leaders will be
• A clear explanation of the prep work that should be completed before the meeting

Note that it is okay to use standing agenda items from meeting to meeting—such as “Company Overview,” “Industry Trends,” “Strategy Discussion,” “Review of Metrics,” “Results,” and “Problem Solving”—as long as you also include the length of time allotted for each item and who will be leading the discussion. Send the agenda out as far in advance of the meeting as possible, and then re-distribute an agenda/meeting reminder 48 hours prior to the meeting.

When putting together the agenda for your meeting, consider the individual Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument profiles of your team members. The HBDI is an assessment instrument that measures people’s specific thinking preferences. Research will show how your members think:  Analyze, Organize, Strategize, and Personalize.  With that information, you can design the meeting agenda that better suits each participant. It is a great way to design your meetings so that there is something for everyone, and you can even color code each thinking pattern to indicate which parts of the meeting your team members will find the most engaging.

Will the conference room be overcrowded? This happens when people are invited whether or not they have a role to play. To ensure that each participant has a role, discuss with them the role you expect them to play—like an expert, an influencer, or a decider.

Make sure everyone who is attending the meeting knows exactly why they were invited. If need be, communicate directly to them why you want them there. Keep the number of “required” attendees as small as possible; and if critical members can’t attend, consider postponing the meeting until they can. Having a meeting without all of the right brains present can cause just as many delays and productivity problems as postponing the meeting a couple of days.

Once you do get all of the right team members assembled, you might also consider having them use a meeting cost calculator, which allows them to privately enter in their salaries and the meeting length to calculate how much it is costing the company for them to be in a given meeting. It is a powerful tool that can promote individual productivity because it reminds everyone involved of the financial significance of the time spent in the meeting.

Will the meeting seemingly go on forever? Now, that might be an exaggeration, but that exact thought will be crossing the minds of those attending a meeting that seems to be going nowhere. When the eyes of attendees start wandering to watches, BlackBerries, and wall clocks in an attempt to see exactly how much time they’ve spent in the meeting and to estimate how much more time will elapse before they can get back to their long to-do lists, you’re in trouble.

Providing a meeting agenda will go a long way toward solving this problem. When attendees know exactly when a meeting will be over, they won’t spend their time internally speculating about when they can leave. Create a reputation for yourself as being a meeting leader who starts and ends on time, every time; and if you do need to extend the meeting’s length, ask the group’s permission before doing so. When you’re creating your meeting agendas, remember that the ideal maximum meeting length is 60 minutes. And use what I call “time boxes” for each agenda item. That means X amount of time is allotted for each agenda item. Bring a kitchen timer that you can use to enforce the time limits. Because time is of the essence for every agenda item, you might want to encourage your discussion leaders to go around and get a headline from each person in the meeting to start each discussion topic. That gives everyone a chance to participate, without allowing one person to take up all of the discussion time for a topic. To keep those attending on their toes, you might even want to consider unusual start times like 11:45 a.m. or 1:15 p.m. 

Could the meeting become a free-for-all? Anyone who’s ever attended a meeting or led a meeting knows that it doesn’t take long for things to get off track. The best way to avoid this is to set some conversational ground rules right away. Make it clear to those in attendance that the ground rules will be used to ensure that everyone’s time is well-spent. Then select four to six rules based on the unique needs of those attending and your specific meeting objectives. A few possibilities include, “Everyone participates,” “Speak in headlines” (to prevent attendees from rambling), and “Police yourself—Am I participating too much or not enough?” and so forth. Keep the rules front and center. You may even want to write them on a flip chart to display during the meeting. Or, once they’re established, you can include them in the actual agenda.

Always ask for the input of the group. They may think a rule will hinder the productivity of the meeting, or they may have a suggestion that will help to keep everyone on topic. The bottom line is, create rules that will help everyone stay focused on the meeting’s goals. Do that consistently, and your meetings will be the better for it.

Do you have big talkers who eat up all the time? Every meeting has them: those people who love to let everyone know they are the most important people in the room, have the best ideas, and have a comment to make on every subject. Your conversational ground rules should help keep your big talkers (or big-headed!) in line, but there are other ways to ensure that one person doesn’t dominate. Don’t let big talkers sit at the front of the room or the back center of a U-shape. This definitely gives them a feeling of being on stage. In fact, you may even want to use assigned seating for the meeting. (If you decide to use assigned seating, change the assignments for each meeting, and if you are the leader, change where you sit for each meeting.) Doing so will also prevent big talkers from sitting next to a buddy. Big talkers tend to feed off of one another, and separating them will help reduce their excessive input.

There are other meeting strategies that will help you garner the participation of everyone rather than just one or two individuals. For instance, include some individual think time in the agenda. Not only does it force your big talkers to organize their thoughts rather than blurting them out every chance they get, but it also allows your introverts to gather their thoughts and formulate what they would like to say. When the individual think time is up, do a round robin during which you ask team members to weigh in. Be sure to start with an introvert whom you saw writing a lot during the think time. You’ll likely find that once you get this person talking, everyone in the group will be surprised by how great his or her input is, and they will wonder why the introvert hasn’t spoken up before.

Breaking attendees up into small groups can also be effective. If quieter attendees can bounce ideas off of each other without the threat of being interrupted by someone else, you are able to truly let their innovations shine through. Trust that those in the meeting are mature enough and self-aware enough that they can monitor their own behaviors. If someone is consistently getting out of hand, it will then be your responsibility to pull him aside after the meeting and let him know that his behavior cannot be tolerated. Emphasize that by listening to the ideas of his or her  colleagues, the individual actually sets himself or herself and the company up for greater success because more ideas come to the fore.

Is conflict among participants a problem? Effective meetings aren’t necessarily free of conflict. In fact, conflict can be a good thing, and it should be valued by those attending any given meeting. The key is not letting it get out of hand. View conflict as “creative abrasion,” a phrase coined by the president of Nissan Design International, Jerry Hirshberg. Here’s a metaphorical explanation of how it works: Picture two tectonic plates on the earth’s surface—your way and my way, perhaps—grating against each other. Many people know that when this kind of friction occurs between plates, earthquakes often ensue. But what happens when these two plates—or viewpoints—come together? If the environment is right, they create a mountain—a third viewpoint that is a product of the first two approaches and that is grander, loftier, and more powerful than either one was on its own. In other words, conflict is turned into synergy.

For creative abrasion to work, leaders have to view conflict as a good thing. When a conflict arises, maybe someone disagrees with an idea that’s been thrown out or with how a certain issue was handled. Defuse the disagreement with collaboration. Openly discuss solutions and compromises that everyone can get behind. And remember, conflict is a group issue. Don’t single anyone out when a conflict arises. Handle it as a group. Create and reinforce a common set of group conflict norms. Similar to the ground rules you use to make your meeting more effective, conflict norms can be used to beget productive discussions that will lead to decisions to which everyone can—and will—commit. Have each member of your team write down three to five norms that would lead the group as a whole to a more productive conflict and allow for better decision making. Examples include: “Establish a common goal that the group fully understands,” “Provide an opportunity for every voice to be heard,” “Speak so others can hear your message,” “Clarify pros, cons, and risks of options or potential solutions,” and so on. 

When things do get heated, ask everyone to take a break for a couple of minutes to think things over. Reinforce the ground rules and ask team members to listen to each other and consider what a possible compromise might be. Remind everyone of the meeting’s ultimate goal and ask, given that goal, how you all can move forward to achieve it. You might hear from your team that more information needs to be gathered. That would make for a good reason to stop the meeting right then and set a date for a future meeting. If the knowledge is in the room, it’s likely that people just aren’t listening to each other. They need to balance inquiry with advocacy. They have probably spent too much time advocating their own positions and not enough trying to understand the other views. Break everyone into smaller groups and give them a moment to think through the other positions. Ask them to write down at least two to three reasons why opposing ideas might be good, as they relate to achieving the ultimate goal. Then give each side a few minutes to state their points. Ask everyone to listen and consider a compromise.

If worse comes to worst, use humor to disarm a tense discussion, and then try to get everyone re-focused. Once you’ve trained your team to truly value and listen to one another, I think you’ll find that situations that may have previously turned into tense conflicts instead turn into intense brainstorming and collaboration sessions.
 
What if no one knows who’s making the decisions? So your meeting is nearly over, you’ve discussed everything on the agenda, and you’re ready to send everyone on their way. Unfortunately, no one is quite clear about what they’re supposed to be doing or who is going to make that decision. As the leader, you don’t have to be the one making all of the decisions, but you do have to make sure the decision-making process is clear to everyone. Decide what the best decision-making process is at the beginning of the meeting based on the criticality of the decision, time constraints, and the need for buy-in. Will a group compromise be necessary? Should everyone vote and defer to the majority’s decision? Will it be better to build a consensus and go from there? Or should you, the leader, make the call? The best method is going to depend on what exactly the meeting’s goal is.

What do you do if no decisions, commitments, or next steps are captured? Too often, meetings end and everyone simply goes back to business as usual without putting anything that was discussed in the meeting into action, or without even knowing what they personally should do. If you keep the format for capturing what went on in the meeting simple, you have a much greater likelihood of understanding what was said and distributing a report quickly. There is no simpler way to record what went on than by writing on a flip chart the WHO, WHAT, and BY WHEN of the directives discussed in the meeting.

Do a round robin with everyone recapping what they are accountable for delivering. Good questions for the leader to ask to get people thinking about the impact of the meeting include, “Who wasn’t in today’s meeting who needs to know what we decided today?” and “How are we going to communicate this to them?” Once decisions have been made and everyone knows how they will be communicated, set the date, time, and location for next meeting, making it clear that all will be responsible for reporting on the results of this meeting’s action items at the next meeting.

What if no meeting evaluations are performed? For many organizations, meetings have simply become something that employees feel like they have to get through. They think that all they need to do is to sit through the meeting, and then they can get back to the task at hand. A great way to ensure that this isn’t the mindset of those in your organization’s meetings is to do proper meeting evaluations.

You don’t have to wait until a meeting is over to evaluate. A great strategy is to do a process check at least once during a meeting. Have everyone assess the four Ps:

• Progress. Are we achieving our goals?
• Pace. Are we moving too fast or too slowly?
• Process. Are we using the right tools/methods?
• Pulse. How is everyone feeling—frustrated, satisfied, energized?

The process check will allow you an opportunity to get everything back on track if the meeting isn’t going as planned.

I believe wholeheartedly that a team meeting can be the most productive and exciting time in that team’s life. Unfortunately, too many organizations meet for the wrong reasons or have simply fallen into a going-through-the-motions meeting style. By implementing a few simple tools, you can breathe life back into your meetings. Give these strategies time to take hold, and you’ll find that your meetings can become times of trust building, problem solving, and collaboration that will energize your employees and give way to innovation that will greatly benefit the organization as a whole.

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Douglas Kimberly Douglas, SPHR, is president of FireFly Facilitation, Inc., a firm specializing in the design and facilitation of high-impact initiatives, including leadership team effectiveness and strategic planning. She has facilitated results for over 25 years in a broad cross-section of industries and organizations, including Coca-Cola, AT&T, Home Depot, UPS, and the U.S. Marine Corps.  Her book, The Firefly Effect, was published by Wiley in April 2009.  For more information:  www.FireFlyFacilitation.com.