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Meetings That Matter

Drawn-out meetings with no clear goals or outcomes are one of the most common grievances among all professionals

By Michelle Neely Martinez

A common complaint of those in the working world is that they spend too much time in meetings. Many feel that if it weren't for the multitude of meetings that occur at work, their productivity would soar. Meetings are the most universally despised part of work life. Drawn-out meetings with no clear goals or outcomes are one of the most common grievances among all professionals.

Ineffective meetings do more than ruin your day. According to William R. Daniels, senior consultant at American Consulting & Training in Mill Valley, Calif., "Meetings matter because that's where an organization's culture perpetuates itself. So every day, if we go to boring meetings full of boring people, then we can't help but think that this is a boring company," says Daniels. "Bad meetings are a source of negative messages about our company and ourselves."

Create 'Uptime' Meetings

Perhaps the biggest stigma attached to meetings is that people don't view them as real work. They think, "The meeting is over. Let's get back to work." The only way to get rid of this stigma is for every meeting to be viewed as "uptime" instead of "downtime," explains Daniels.

Among the best examples of "uptime" meetings are those held at semiconductor manufacturer Intel Corp., based in Palo Alto, Calif. The company stresses the importance of meetings to employees from their first day of employment. Every new employee—from entry-level to senior-level professionals—must take an Intel-developed course on effective meetings. The course isn't complicated, says Michael Fors, corporate training manager at Intel University. It's about mastering the basics—such as setting clear agendas, clear goals and realistic outcomes.

Clear reminders about the importance of corporate gatherings are evident in every Intel conference room throughout the world, via a poster that lists a series of simple questions about meetings: "Do you know the purpose of this meeting? Do you have an agenda? Do you know your role? Do you follow the rules of good minutes?"

"There is a science to meetings that is available to people now," notes Michael Begeman, manager of the 3M Meeting Network, a group of meeting experts assembled by Minneapolis-based 3M Corp. Information describing how to make meetings more productive is available, he says. The problem is that "most people haven't learned it or don't bother to use it."

Based on the work by Begeman and Daniels, here are five ways to improve the effectiveness of any meeting:

  • Decide what type of conversation is needed before calling the meeting and let participants know. By doing so, you make it clear to meeting participants what is expected of them. For example, if the meeting is being held to generate ideas it could be labeled "conversation for possibility." Participants should know that idea generating is in order and maximum creativity will be explored during the meeting. A meeting that requires an immediate decision could be called "conversation for action." Another type of meeting could be built around a "conversation of opportunity," in which the goal is to narrow down existing options.

  • Reduce the length of each meeting. Most experts say that gatherings should never last longer than 90 minutes. In some cases, a 10-minute meeting may be all you need. The idea is to not go over the time you've allotted. One way to drive this message home to your boss and colleagues is to track the cost of meetings. If people realize how expensive meetings can be, based on participants' time, they may be more apt to stick to a specific meeting time period.

  • Convert decisions into actions. To avoid having people leave the same meeting with different views of what is supposed to happen next, assign tasks that lead to specific actions.

  • Get serious about using agendas. Without an agenda, it's hard to keep meetings on track and even more difficult for participants to understand what their role is. Intel is religious about its use of agendas. Employees even have access to an agenda template for ease of use and consistency. At Intel, agendas are circulated several days before the specified meeting to let participants react to or modify it. The agendas also include information about the meeting's key topics, who will lead various parts of the discussion, how long each topic of discussion will take, and what outcomes are expected.

  • Use toys. Begeman swears by them: "If you want people to work together effectively, let them play together." He suggests keeping squeeze balls, Slinkys and Tinker Toys in conference rooms because they serve a dual purpose—as stress relievers and creativity enhancers.

Michelle Neely Martinez is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in workplace and management issues.

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