Yesterday, I posted some tips for running effective meetings. What happens when you’re on the other side of the table? How can you ensure you are getting the most out of meetings you attend?
When you attend a meeting you should:
Attend only if needed. Some use meetings as a weapon in their office politics arsenal. They attended to be seen and heard whether they need to be there or not. If you’re not going to contribute to the discussion or if the outcomes do not affect you, don’t attend. Too many non-essential participants can extend the length of the meeting.
Get There On time. I refuse to start a meeting late for the sake of the person who wanders in five-minutes past start time; mostly to prove they are too busy and important to get to a meeting on time. It is discourteous to the chair and to those who make the effort to be on time.
Be prepared with your contribution. If you’ve given up attending meetings where your contribution is not needed, it stands to reason all the meetings you attend require participation. Prepare whatever information you anticipate needing. Go overboard. Bring twice as much data as you think you’ll need. Just don’t spew the whole works. If you have information to hand out, get it to participants a day or two before the meeting.
Pay attention. There will always be those at a meeting so focused on their opinion that they are not really listening to what the others are saying. Listen actively to the discussion. You don’t want to merely parrot or repeat another participant’s contribution.
Get involved in the discussion. Review the agenda and clarify your thoughts prior to the meeting. Make some notes. Being prepared will make it more likely that you will have some energy behind your points of view and, therefore, be more likely to express them.
Be courteous. You’re not likely to agree with everything said at a meeting. Never interrupt anyone – even if you disagree strongly. Note what has been said and return to it later with the chair’s permission. The point of most meetings is to reach agreements. If the participants are combative, the meetings will drag on. Look for ways to build consensus.
If you are attending a meeting, ensure that you respect the time of other attendees by being well prepared, attentive, concise and respectful..
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Meetings can be effective ways of sharing information or reaching a decision. However, ineffectively run, they can swallow up your time without giving much benefit. Just as jobs have a cost, meetings have a cost; not only for you but for all who attend. After any meeting ask yourself, “was my contribution worth my investment?”
Here are some tips for running meetings in the most effective way possible:
1. Hold meetings when trigger events occur
Many regular meetings are little more than a case of doing something because it’s the “correct” way to do things or it’s always been done that way. The management team feels it is a “good thing” to communicate, but are unclear what they would like to communicate. Time is alloted for discussion and discussion expands to fill the time.
It is more effective to hold meetings when specific events show them to be necessary. For example, a deliverable is delayed by two weeks. How does this effect the overall timing of the project and what steps can be taken to keep the whole thing on track.
By scheduling meetings to occur on trigger events, you ensure time is invested in the solution of a problem, only when the problem occurs.
2. Use the Agenda Effectively
The agenda is effectively the to-do list for the meeting. It shows the aim and discussion points in priority order.
Using an agenda focuses the meeting, and provides a guide for keeping discussion on-track. Circulating the agenda sufficiently in advance, allows people to prepare for the meeting so it isn’t held up for lack of information.
3. Setting the time of the meeting
You can schedule the meeting to take advantage of the attendees:
- Where people tend to waffle excessively, you can schedule the meeting just before lunch or going home, giving participants an incentive to keep things brief.
- Where people are time conscious, write the cost per minute of the meeting on a flip chart can have a focusing effect.
- Always start meetings on time. When meetings start late, you are in effect penalizing all those who arrived on time. Start without the late-comers.
- If you’re have a problem with people consistently showing up late, start a meeting at an unusual time, say19 minutes past the hour. This can improve punctuality.
4. Other Useful Techniques
- Invite the minimum number of attendees needed to a meeting. The more people in attendance, the more discussion there will be. Inviting people who are not needed wastes their time.
- Make sure that decisions made at a previous meeting have been acted on. This ensures that the meeting will not just be seen as a ‘talking-shop’.
- At the end of the meeting, prepare minutes summarizing the points discussed and defining action steps on the decisions. This ensures everyone understands what has been decided and who will do what.
Meetings can be effective methods for reaching decisions. They can also be huge time wasters. When you invest time in a meeting, you should expect a sufficiently large pay-back to justify the investment.
One approach to ensure effective decision making in small, informal meetings is to develop motions and decisions through consensus. Consensus occurs when there is general agreement by the group on the decision being made.
Well managed meetings allow all participants to be part of the decision making process. Here are some techniques a chairperson can use to encourage and support group participation and discussion:
The chair solicits views
The meeting chair suggests that comments are welcome from the group and, if necessary, asks specific participants to share their views. Participants hear a number of short opinions rather than listening to one or two long speeches.
After a short discussion, the chair asks for a show of hands to determine support for proposed idea(s). This should help the chair determine how to proceed. This encourages participants to express an opinion.
Groups can be very useful in the decision making process at meetings and for generating new ideas from participants. The meeting divides into smaller groups, i.e. four to eight people, for a fixed time to discuss assigned issues. A person is chosen to record the conclusions of the group. The groups then report their ideas to the larger meeting. The alternatives that are generated will assist the meeting in resolving issues and making decisions acceptable to all.
This is a procedure for generating many spontaneous and diverse ideas which can help to develop alternatives that will assist in resolving the issue being discussed and in coming to a decision. Guidelines for brainstorming are:
- don’t criticize the ideas of others while brainstorming;
- impractical suggestions may trigger practical ideas among other participants;
- the more ideas, the greater the chance of developing a very good idea;
- build on the ideas of others, improve on a previous idea or combine several ideas into one;
- choose one person to record all ideas on a flipchart so that everyone can see them and a record exists; and
- after a brainstorming session, critically screen the list of ideas for four or five consistent items or themes. Also, if brainstorming has been done in smaller groups, identify similar issues from the lists of individual groups. Finally, develop this short list of ideas into options for decisions.
Conflict arises in meetings. You might assume conflict is negative, but it can be helpful leading to innovation, positive change or agreement when discussing an issue. It is important to remember that disagreement is necessary to the process of group decision making. The chairperson may have to resolve conflict in a meeting in order to reach an acceptable decision.
The following are steps that are useful in resolving conflict:
- Recognize that there is conflict and identify the issue causing the disagreement.
- Collect all information relating to the conflict, share it and assess it.
- Propose possible solutions, including the consequences of the proposals.
- Find a mutually acceptable resolution without coercion.
- Carry out the agreement and evaluate its effectiveness, with all parties sharing in the evaluation.
If a meeting does get out of hand, take a short break. When the meeting reconvenes, the chair can summarize the discussion up to the point of conflict or have opposing sides summarize their respective positions. The chairperson can then attempt to lead the two opposing sides in negotiating a solution.