Saturday, March 1, 2008

Running an effective meeting

Today marks a blogging milestone for me, my 100th daily post. Thanks for your support and comments along the way.

My 14 year old daughter and I recently talked about my jobs. I gave her the long explanation about what I do - strategy, structure, staffing, and process optimization. She asked for the elevator speech version and I said, "Basically, I run a lot of meetings."

Running an effective meeting takes a lot of energy. The meeting organizer is responsible for the logistics, bringing together the right people, ensuring all stakeholders are heard, managing the interactions, and documenting the results. Many meetings are not a good use of time. Here's columnist Dave Barry's analysis:

"Compare the modern corporate meeting to a funeral, in the sense that you have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else. The major differences are 1. Usually only one or two people get to talk at a funeral 2. Most funerals have a definite purpose (to say nice things about a dead person) and reach a definite conclusion (this person is put in the ground); whereas meetings generally drone on until the legs of the highest ranking person fall asleep."

Here's my guidance to running an effective meeting:

1. Organize the meeting in the most painless way possible
Outlook invitations work well for folks who have a lot of flexibility in the calendars or who are always working in a single location. For executives who attend meetings 12 hours a day and who travel between several corporate locations, automated invitations just do not work. I cannot be in Los Angeles for breakfast and Boston for lunch. Outlook invitations do not take into account travel time, location, and the general pace of the day. In my view, there are three effective ways to organize a meeting

a. Propose 4 or 5 possible dates/times and circulate them via email among the attendees/administrative assistants. Determine the "must have" attendees at the meeting. Based on the best fit of the "must haves", select a date/time. Just about all meetings can be organized this way.
b. If urgency is required, get all the admins on a conference call and do a real time reconciliation of calendars for the best fit. A use case for this is a meeting to discuss a strategic opportunity with time sensitivity.
c. If real urgency is required, just set a date and time and ask everyone to cancel their other commitments. A use case for this is a Joint Commission visit. Just drop everything you're doing.

Using endless "reply to all" emails among a large group of attendees to schedule a meeting generally does not work. For a senior leader, trying to organize a meeting yourself, without administrative coordination is very problematic, since there is a lot of communication required to find the best fit among many schedules.

2. Food and drink are real motivators to attend a very early, lunch time or very late meeting
Be kind to your attendees. They are giving their time to you and have very busy schedules. We are all under such time pressure that the only near term free times in our calendars are breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you use those times, bring refreshments.

3. Arrive early and begin the meeting promptly
Meetings take a lot of energy to organize. Time is the one commodity that people cannot make more of. If the meeting organizer arrives late, it's a sign of disrespect. Begin and end the meeting on time. The attendees will appreciate it.

4. Circulate meeting materials including a formal agenda, ahead of time
I've attended several meetings without a clear understanding of who's attending, the purpose of the meeting, the desired outcome, and any preparation I should do ahead of time. Circulate an agenda a few days before the meeting containing

a. The attendees, location, and call in number (for remote attendees)
b. The overall purpose of the meeting
c. The items to be discussed, identifying the main presenters
d. The background briefing materials to help with decisionmaking

The meeting is likely to be much more productive.

5. Ensure everyone has a chance to speak and interacts professionally
As the master of ceremonies of the meeting, the convener must prevent hegemony of any one speaker and should rapidly quash any emotional outbursts. It's fine to criticize ideas in a meeting but not to criticize or attack a person. I often use humor, real time compromise, and personal stories of similar past controversies to bring out the best behavior in everyone. If I know that a meeting has potental landmines, I'll openly state them at the beginning of the meeting and give permission to everyone to openly discuss them in a non-judgemental forum.

6. Put your Blackberry away
During long meetings that I run, I will very occassionally (once an hour) scan the inbox on my Blackberry for downtime messages, urgent notices, email from the CEO etc., but I will never use the Blackberry to respond to an issue while I am running a meeting.

7. Adhere to the agenda
Running a meeting requires focus. If there are tangential discussions, bring the focus back to the agenda. If there are private sidebar conversations, bring them into the whole meeting. The only way for the meeting to move forward is with everyone listening and progressing through the agenda.

8. Do a mid meeting summary
Halfway through the meeting, I take a checkpoint. Are we on track, what have we decided thus far? I summarize the main points of agreement and the remaining items on the agenda, so we can bring closure to the work we've done thus far and move forward.

9. Own the last two minutes
The last two minutes of the meeting are the most important. The convener should review all the decisions made, the next steps decided upon, the resources committed, the timelines, the deliverables, and most critically, the paths not chosen i.e. we will not do this project, spend this money, pursue that opportunity. By ending the meeting with an overall summary, all will leave the meeting with a common understanding of the consensus, even if some do not agree with it. The last two minutes can make or break the meeting by ensuring there is no ambiguity about the meeting's results. With a clear summary, all participants will understand the value of the meeting and their role in the meeting events.

10. Send a followup email summary with minutes
Even with a great last two minute summary, some stakeholders will have selective memory. It's best to memorialize the last two minutes of the meeting in meeting minutes, circulated to all meeting attendees and stakeholders. Also, take the time to thank those who attended the meeting and praise them for their work.

By following these steps, you maximize your meeting time, optimize communication, and maybe even reduce the number of meetings needed because of your remarkable efficiency running the process!


Unknown said...

valuable advice - thanks!
Yaron Derman

Kevinpshan said...

I have found this application to be very helpful scheduling a meeting with many attendees.

praveen said...

Following startup aims to solve step 1.

Download the Outlook plugin and signup to the web2.0 interface.

Anonymous said...

great advice. a lot of the steps you have outlined can easily be facilitated with a simple meeting software