“Most meetings are poorly-planned, badly-managed and attendance is often mandatory. If you’re forced to sit though a meeting that’s running way too long and the agenda is nothing of concern to you, then using a mobile device will allow you to salvage at least a little of your productive capacity. But the real answer is shorter, more focused meetings. If meetings are well-managed and everyone is actively involved and contributing, there’d be no time to get caught up on your email and surf the Web.”
That was the response from one Boston Business Journal reader in response to a poll as to whether mobile devices should be allowed during meetings.
Most organizations might gladly sacrifice the use of PDAs, cell phones and laptops in exchange for a shorter, more engaging meeting that achieves or exceeds intended outcomes. So if you are the meeting leader, what can you do to fulfill your part of the bargain?
In this edition of Communiqué, I offer eight surefire steps to planning and running well-focused meetings that engage participants and deliver results in less time. Taken together, these steps will bring you much closer to the kind of meeting where participants are happy to leave their mobile devices at the door, or at least off the table. Even if you take just one or two of these steps at a time, those who put their PDAs and cell phones aside will be probably be glad they made the trade.
- Set meeting ground rules and gain agreement from everyone. Depending how counter-cultural some of the ground rules might be (e.g., no laptops for an IT group that seems hardwired to tech tools), send ground rules in advance so people can plan accordingly. Once you gain agreement, reinforce ground rules vigilantly. The minute you let one person sneak a text message, come back late, or monopolize the conversation, everyone will assume they can do the same. Make sure ground rules are appropriate for all cultures. For example, a ground rule of “all are peers” is not likely to gain traction in a culture where hierarchy and seniority matter deeply. And in this case, you may never know that some participants just can’t abide by the ground rule unless you have done your homework.
- Create and communicate clear objectives, both in advance of the meeting and at the start. Test for shared understanding to make sure you’re all in synch. Allocate sufficient time to do this, especially if the topics are likely to be complex, contentious or sensitive. While you may accept modifications, resist attempts to overhaul or add to objectives. After all, you’ve created an agenda and invited exactly the right people for the original objectives. “Park” any other objectives for the end of the meeting, when you can agree how best to handle them. Be prepared to refer to objectives frequently as way to keep conversations focused.
- Select participants thoughtfully and clarify roles up front. No one wants to be sitting around a conference room–or worse, on a con call–when the conversations are irrelevant. Determine who really must be involved in each real-time conversation and who can contribute thoughts or feedback other ways. For example, people can post ideas in a virtual conference room, on a team blog, or even via email in advance of, or after, a real-time meeting. Interviews can also help unearth valuable perspectives in advance or afterwards. Try having some people join for just a portion of the conversation that most directly affects them, as long as partial participation does not disrupt the flow of the entire meeting. In any event, let everyone know how much you appreciate how valuable their time is, so some don’t feel put off when they are not invited.
- Insist on preparation by all. When people come unprepared, you’ll chew up a lot of valuable conversation time bringing people up to speed. Be specific about the type and amount of prep work required when you send out your meeting details, and be realistic about how much time people are really likely to spend. For a two-hour call, you might realistically expect about an hour of pre-work. For a longer meeting, you can probably ask people to invest more time in preparation. Two guidelines to keep in mind: If you want people to do prep work, post or send content at least a few working days ahead of time. And: Ask people to take a specific action as they prepare. For example: “Review the proposed budget and identify three places your team can cut expenses in the next three months.” Or: “After reviewing competitors’ data, be prepared to name the two areas we should be most worried about, with suggested ways to address them.”
- Establish a realistic agenda. If you try to cram three hours’ worth of discussions into an hour and a half, you may get a shorter meeting alright, but you certainly won’t achieve the desired results. And guess what?! You’ll need one, two or maybe even three more meetings to accomplish your goals. Err on the side of being conservative about how much time you’ll need, versus being wildly ambitious. For each major objective, consider what kind of conversation is needed by whom, in what sequence, and how long that conversation is likely to take. You may end up scheduling a series of briefer meetings or one longer meeting, depending on schedules and the relative sense of urgency to reach completion.
- Stick to your agenda. Don’t allow anyone to hijack discussions that will take you off track. Certain digressions can be illuminating and necessary, but set limits about how long to spend on off-track topics. Be prepared to cut some people off, especially if their conversations are long-winded or off the mark. When setting ground rules up front, try apologizing in advance for offending anyone you may need to cut off, letting them know how important this will be to staying on track. Most people will breathe a sigh of relief. Refer back to the agenda and objectives as needed to refocus the group. Threatening to convene a follow-on meeting if you can’t finish what you’ve started is a great way to get people back on track.
- Pick up the pace. If you sense that energy is dissipating or interest is fading, stop a minute to decide how best to proceed. If you’re on a con call, it’s reasonable to say something like: “I am not hearing from many of you. I don’t know whether this means we’ve lost you, or you’re thinking what to say, or you’re busy doing email. Can someone help me understand what’s going on?” Chances are, you will re-engage those you have lost. If the body language of those in the room suggests that people have become disengaged, state your observation and ask what’s going on. Or you might offer choices such as taking a 2-minute stretch break, checking in to see how people feel about the process, or reflecting back on the objectives and ask people whether they feel they’re on track. Inject energy and project enthusiasm especially when group energy is low.
- Know when to end. Just because you’ve scheduled a two-hour meeting doesn’t mean you have to use the whole time. If you’ve achieved most of your goals and people seem ready to end, let people know you’re prepared to end the meeting early, and spend the last few minutes wrapping up loose ends, such as action planning or mapping out next steps. Review the objectives one final time and summarize what the group has done to achieve them. If there are outstanding questions or issues not yet addressed, gain agreement as to how best to move them forward. If, on the other hand, you realize you can’t possibly achieve your objectives in this meeting, call it right away and discuss with the group how best to proceed. One option: End this meeting now and reconvene another time, perhaps with different participants or with new information.
If participants keep reaching for their keypads and cell phones, ask yourself what you can do to make your meetings more productive, crisp and engaging. When busy people become bored, they will quickly turn elsewhere to regain a sense of productivity. So when planning your next meeting, whether face-to-face or virtual, think carefully about the many ways you can engage everyone to speed time to results. If you don’t, not only may participants tune out and turn on their PDAs, but worse, they may claim to be busy next time you send them a meeting request.