Stop meetings ruining your life

20:26, Jun 27 2013

Writer and columnist David Barry summed it up best when he said, to paraphrase, 'you could sum up in one word, the reason why the human race had not and never would, achieve its full potential – meetings'.

Kiwi time management guru and author of Getting a Grip on Effective Meetings, Robyn Pearce, says research shows CEOs spend an average of 69% of their time in meetings, while the average person whittles away three to five years of their life keeping minutes, but losing hours.

In the corporate environment, meetings are inevitable. Responsibilities need to be delegated, decisions made and goals monitored. So how do you hold successful meetings, save time and money, and achieve what needs to be done. In one word, discipline, says Pearce. In a few more, agendas, preparation and best practice.

Turn meetings into a tool, not torture, she says.

And there's software like 1FiCS, a package that helps manage business processes including meetings, developed by New Zealand risk management specialist Andrew Batten.

Stick to a few rules and meetings can become quite painless.


1. Should you meet?

Do you really need to meet? The lesser known of the Apple duo, Steve Wozniak, despised meetings. In his memoirs he offered this advice: “Work alone, not on a committee. Not on a team.” Will an email, questionnaire or memo suffice? If it’s a one-on-one meeting, could you do two things at once, such as walk and talk? 

US-based corporate director Nilofer Merchant told a recent TED audience that she walks and talks her way to 32kms a week. “Reframe the concept. That way you don’t have to look after work at the expense of yourself and visa versa.”

Don't put chairs in the meeting room. If everyone has to stand up, it’s unlikely anyone will want long lectures.

2. Get organised

Don’t underestimate the importance of being prepared. Batten says technology can create a healthy meeting culture in an organisation by providing appropriate frameworks. “Agendas are critical, preparation is imperative and accurate record keeping is vital to track accountability. Without a formal agenda, meetings can drag on interminably and achieve little.”

Time is money, says Pearce, so have a start time and don’t wait for late comers. “I was kicked out of a meeting once for turning up late and it cured me of it forever,” she says. “Time should also be spent making decisions not voicing opinions, so if the agenda doesn’t align with your goals, ask if you need to be there or send your apologies. If you have to attend check if you can leave after your contribution.” 

Make sure all documents relevant to the agenda go out with instructions that they be read before the meeting.

3. Make them believe

Groups are inherently problematic, usually because there are so many personality types in one room. Each will bring their own dynamic to the meeting. There’s the strong, dogmatic voice at one end and a shy person at the other - and inevitably there’s the non-participant who will criticise a decision later, despite not voicing an opinion at the time. 

Batten says staff have to trust the meeting process before they will contribute. “If they see that hours are spent in meaningless discussions without any visible or tangible outcomes, they won’t believe the meeting has a valid purpose. As such, they will never buy into the process and won’t deliver opinions that could be useful.”

Pearce says a good chairperson will recognise the different personality styles and use appropriate body language and diplomacy to keep the meeting moving. “Workers are more likely to participate if they feel their ideas are given serious consideration,” she says.

4. Go hi-tech

Use technology for real time decision making. It’s possible for a team at a remote site to feed data into a system like 1FiCS over the internet via their smart devices, so it will be immediately available to participants anywhere in the world. 

That way they can follow the progress of an activity and make relevant decisions. There are significant benefits in immediate decision making and not having the cost of paper-based reports. 

Research what is available and what suits your organisation – it could be equipment as simple as a whiteboard and a projector, or something more extensive like a meeting management system. Make sure someone knows how everything works before the meeting starts.

5. Put it on record

Don’t trust your memory. Make sure one person has been tasked with recording meeting minutes that set clear parameters about what has to be done. These should be sent out no more than 24 hours after the meeting. 

A content management system that records meeting data and allocates actions in situ, before emailing everyone, “keeps you honest,” says Batten. “Traditionally meeting minutes would indicate who was delegated the responsibility for an action. These could disappear without anything being done. With 1fiCS it doesn’t go away. Everyone can see that you’ve got actions against your name and if things are overdue. The system is very transparent and no action goes away until the record is closed. Things therefore get done and the end result is that you improve productivity.” 

Employees quickly learn if there is no follow through and that undermines any decisive decision making in the future. “You need to properly track compliance,” says Batten.

6. Take a break

Give your meeting structure. Have an end time and don’t go for more than an hour without a break. Pearce says people’s attention span is dictated by what happens in the lower part of their anatomy. 

“If our bladder is full, our bottom numb or our legs need a stretch, our ability to concentrate is almost non-existent. If a meeting must go longer than an hour, give everyone a 'stretch and stand' break every hour or so. However, be clear about how long they've got - and get started immediately as people come back into the room.”

She adds that the other benefit of a break is it gives people’s brains a chance to refocus. Start as you mean to finish. Know what you want to accomplish by the end of the meeting and agree on the format. 

Most conflict arises from lack of understanding or poor communication, so make sure everything is clear from the beginning.