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On Improving Organized Meetings

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright © 2002 by RDFollendoreIII

October 4, 2002

Before any organization acts to improve meetings, it must first be clearly understood that meetings represent a very large investment for your organization.  Before you consider making changes to your existing meetings first calculate the cost of meetings over the whole year so that the expense of planning to agree to act will be respected as much as the action.  To do this simply take the sum of the individual hourly salaries of people involved and multiply the yearly number of hours for a typical meeting and add in all of the overhead.  Next, calculate the savings that could be made if meetings were made 20% more efficient.  Now separately consider what savings could be made if the now 20% more efficient meetings were also 20% more effective.  The result of a 20% more efficient AND 20% more effective meeting is far more than 20% cost savings.  Put those numbers down in writing as immediate goals because you can achieve much better than 20%.  

How is this possible?  Ask yourself the purpose of business meetings.  If all meetings are primarily brain storming sessions then something is wrong with meeting planning, decision-making and delegation of leadership.  If some meetings are never setup for brainstorming then something is wrong with planning cycle related to problem solving, delegation, team, and consensus building.  If meetings are primarily social activities then something is wrong with the internal group leadership.  If meetings are to review or micromanage, every decision made then something is wrong with leadership delegation of authority, responsibility.  If meetings are overwhelming then something is fundamentally wrong with the organizational planning and leadership process. 

Good meetings have good meeting leaders.  There is the meeting leader that develops, organizes, and coordinates the meeting agenda prior to the meeting.  There is the agenda leader that sees that the meeting is proceeding to meet the agenda effectively and efficiently.  The meeting leader and the agenda leader may or may not be the same individual.  The role of the meeting leader is to assure that all of the issues exist on the meeting agenda.  The role of the agenda leader is to assure that the issues are handled as effectively as possible given the meeting schedule. The point is that the scheduling of the meeting is a fundamental issue existing within the meeting agenda, not outside of it.  It is therefore a central problem to be solved through the meeting.            

The primary issue that all of these problems have in common is the loss of control of meetings primarily by not defining both the purpose and value of meetings in advance.  A specific agenda developed in cooperation with the key participants in advance was never achieved.  The distribute that agenda and circulation of background material, documents or articles prior to the meeting so members are prepared, feel involved and are up-to-date in advance did not take place.  A culture was not created that recognized that meetings are for limited concise review and decision-making and not for learning by the seat of your pants.  Lectures and conferences are for that.  

Another problem is that if these problems exist, there is an underlying disrespect for other’s commitments.  The group might forget to choose an appropriate meeting time so that there is a set a time limit and/or they do not stick to that limit.  They do not include breaks every hour.  They do not assure that breaks get progressively more often and longer if the meeting drags on longer than expected.  Somewhere it was forgotten that members of meetings would be far more productive if the meeting structure itself is geared to be productive, predictable and that meetings are as short as possible.

There are three choices for getting people together that which be decided in advance.

1.      Briefings occur when a leader requests information so that he can be informed to make decisions at a gathering. 

2.      Meetings occur when the leader delegates much or even most of the leadership for interacting at the gathering, often in his/her presence.

3.      Marathons occur when a group of people gets together to see who can endure the activities they are performing together over the largest distances and the longest available time.

Often a meeting is put together when a briefing should actually have been organized.  In far too many cases, Marathons are too often chosen when meetings should have taken place. 

Some time ago I noticed that there seemed to be stages built into meetings, so I gave those stages their own names.  If there is a need for a meeting, then the members need to be aware that these meeting stages exist.  These different stages to meetings should be definitely recognized by the meeting’s agenda leader so that the meeting schedule can be maintained.  He/she should be aware that they could occur in any order and sometimes can take place spontaneously.[1]

1.      A lecture stage is when a member of the group professes facts, statistics, and everyone else listens.  The influence for decisions is information, presence, and articulation. 

2.      A conference stage is when a number of leaders profess facts and opinions taking turns in a predetermined order and members of the meeting group take notes, listen, and learn.  The primary influences for decisions in this stage are a combination of positional authority, charisma and the best case

3.      A debate stage is when a group argues perspectives in an attempt to influence each other’s opinions.  The primary influences for decisions in this stage is charisma, facts available on hand, presence, articulation, the sensitively and control of group dynamics. The debate stage 

4.      A brainstorming stage is when a group creatively introduces ideas, opinions, and concepts for creating new solutions.  The primary influence for decisions in this stage are creative intelligence, charisma, articulation, presence, and sensitive cooperative timing.

5.      A lightening storm stage is when a brainstorm turns into a debate sometimes ending in a lecture and hard feelings.  A lightening storm is usually a meeting that has gone off track, although it can sometimes serve the necessary purposes of eliminating members, and halting unnecessary or unproductive meetings.  The primary influences in this stage are charisma and positional authority.

 

A big problem is that meeting groups may not choose establish a meeting leader to create effective meetings or they refuse to rotate that role.  They did not arrange the room so that members face each in order that more effective physical communication takes place. The meeting agenda leader may not be keeping the group on task.  A common problem is the choice of the meeting location.  Meetings are too often unsuitable to the group’s size.  Small stuffy rooms with too many people create tension that delay and confuse the agenda.  Larger rooms are not only more comfortable; they encourage individual expression and allow members to get the point across without feeling treating.  Participants at meetings may not be greeting members and making them feel welcome.  This may be particularly true for late members with legitimate reasons for being tardy.  The meeting places may not be varied so that the same feelings of previous meetings are being repeated without awareness. 

If you want to get your meetings productive, you will need to invite new or occasional members.  If you already do this, you may not be getting good results because new meeting members may not be accommodated or introduced.  By the end of each meeting, be sure everyone knows where and when the next meeting will be held.  Serve light refreshments; they are good icebreakers and make your new or occasional members feel special and your regular members comfortable.

Use visual aids for interest, including posters, projected diagrams, to increase the efficiency and productivity of meetings.  A large agenda that remains up front and center, and to which members can refer will help the group focus and stay on track.  Putting a piece of paper with that same agenda in their hands is complementary and useful but not a replacement.  Review the agenda that is up front at the beginning of the meeting and establish priorities within that agenda at the beginning of the meeting.  The agenda leader should concisely state what was achieved and what was not achieved at the end of the meeting. 

Stick to the agenda to effectively solve problems.  Stick to the schedule to effectively solve problems.  If new issues come up, then create a new agenda for future meetings or adjust the existing one.  If you must adjust the existing agenda, the rule should be that it must not affect the scheduled length of the existing meeting.  It is important to start meetings on time but above all else, be sure to get in the habit of ending meetings on time.  New meetings can always be scheduled.  Familiarity of meeting place, people, and time can mean that they become social occasions rather than solution occasions so they lose their decisive edge.  Meetings become like protective bubbles.  It is too easy to forget that the meetings should always be less important than the decisions and the solutions.  Often difficult problems that are being talked about in meetings are better resolved out of meetings. 

Most meetings should be less than two hours long.  Movies are less than two hours for a reason.  Soldiers on guard duty have two-hour shifts for a reason.  Factory workers get breaks every two hours or less for a reason.  College classes and conferences are often in two-hour sessions for a reason.  Meetings more than two hours long become progressively nonproductive.  Psychological studies have shown that human beings loose comprehension with longer periods of intense concentration.  Perception if affected fatigue to the extent that individuals are unable to see events take place around them.  The decisions that are made in meetings that are over two hours long are less insightful, less decisive and is cohesive in the sense that there is a greater tendency for the group to agree in order to get the meeting over rather than to achieve the best solution.  Remember that three individual two-hour meetings are better than one six-hour meeting.      

 Meetings are organized communication activities that are meant to be informative, and decisive about the relationship of problems and solutions.  Meetings in and of themselves are the first problem and are the foremost problem of realizing organizational success.  They can be a means to achieving organized productivity or a barrier to obtaining the best solutions.  If you introduce the management of your meetings with these essential concepts in mind, then you will have taken hold of tremendous opportunities for you and your group.     


Roy Follendore III holds a Master of Science in Communication, a B.S. in Liberal Studies Electronics, and a B.F.A. in Photography.  He has researched, developed and patented sophisticated communication software and hardware systems for organizations and has both been responsible for and attended more than his share of useless meetings in Government and Industry.  He has lectured and taught about the importance of managing organizational change with technical change at the CIA and teaches advanced graduate topics as an adjunct Professor at George Mason University.  Roy is an outspoken advocate of improving human communication and decision making within technical and executive meetings of organizations, and is available for speaking engagements and teaching some of the lessons, he has learned over the years.  You may contact him through email at royf@noisetoknowledge.com.    

 



[1] One thing to remember is that the first three can be reasonably scheduled and managed within the meeting agenda.  The last two can be vital to success of finding and agreeing upon the best solutions and it is important to allow a certain amount of time within a regular meeting schedule for these stages.  However, these stages often need to be either taken “off-line” as a sidebar process during the meeting, or scheduled as possible independent or “off-site” sessions. 

 

 

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Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved