Just like conversations around the dinner table, meetings take on different dynamic levels depending on the characters in place and the blend of personalities involved. There are meetings where the players are tired from a full day’s agenda and it’s clear the accomplishments will be minimal due to the fatigue of the participants. There are meetings full of chiefs and very few Indians and orders are being barked out constantly to no one in particular and the center stage spotlight is being contested throughout the session. There are autocratic meetings where the term “meeting” is merely a word and the person who called the “meeting” is only using the format as he/she is delegating out every bit of the responsibility. There are meetings where something tragic has just happened and the team never really gets on task and there are meetings where something great has happened and there is no way anyone will get full attention.
In any event there are certain elements of a meeting and certain roles that must be played for progress to occur. These are not the ones you’ll see in the textbooks about meetings or in the articles about the “20 Steps To Successful Participation” in business magazines. These are the inside-the-meeting intangibles I have found to be absolutely critical. If any of the following seem to be missing at the next meeting you have, try to represent the missing role. I’ll bet you the next meeting goes even better due to the input this list will remind you to include.
Step 1 – Why Are We Here?
At the beginning of the meeting, be sure someone says, “The reason we are here today is…”. As trite as this may seem, stating the obvious can be a huge time saver. I was in a meeting just last week where someone eventually said, “Well that’s not why we are here today.” Within seconds someone blurted out, “Why are we here today?” I noticed the people who called the meeting had a hard time nailing that one down. When it all shook out, there was much that should have been prepared before the meeting ever took place and although the session helped to begin to organize, it was a waste to call all these people together before the individual beginning assignments had been completed. If no one nails down the purpose from the get go, you suggest it. I practically guarantee someone will support you and endorse your need to define the goal.
Step 2 – Beware The Redundancy Spotter
Sometimes it’s necessary to state and restate the problems (or issues) as they are being shaped and reworked. Invariably there will be some self-appointed agenda devotee who will decide to regulate the meeting and derail this effort by saying, “We already established that.” Or “You said that before.” Send this person for more coffee….across town. As the decision tree grows, it is sometimes very useful to re-state the problem over and over. If you did number one well enough, this will seem very natural much like the server calling out the score in volleyball before every serve, “Six serving three!”. But if the spotter gains momentum, he/she will shut down the open exchange of ideas and all clarity will be lost
Step 3 -- Let People Take On Roles If They Are Helping The Flow
I have one associate famous for stopping people from interrupting themselves mid-sentence and trying to take a different angle. When she hears someone stop abruptly and say, “Okay let’s look at it another way,” she’ll interrupt and say, “No, finish your thought, I was with you.” People almost immediately comply and the attention is suddenly so focused further interpretation is rarely needed.
Step 4 -- Let The Evaluator Sum Up
There’s always one person who says something like, “Okay when we walk away from this table what do we want to be holding?” Or “Okay so all of this means what?” If you don’t have that guy in your group, become that guy. It is so helpful when those things are said (repeatedly) because groups normally drift off task. The evaluator serves a great purpose. Sometimes he/she will be sharply corrected with protests from the group. “No, no, no that’s not what we said!” Then the good evaluator says, “Well what did we say?” The next utterance is usually so accurate all kinds of time is saved as the group is reminded exactly what is intended.
Step 5 – Be Brief, Be Clear, Be Gone
And speaking of saved time… I find it very rare for a meeting to run productively for more than an hour unless it is a specific agenda of items needing to be hammered out -- like the elements of a new contract or a construction meeting where progress reports are being reviewed. As you prepare your part of any meeting, help the process along by being concise and staying on subject. Remove unnecessary statistics and side stories. Ask yourself, “does anyone really need this information?” If your answer is no, kill it. Think about your kid’s last sports banquet and remember how angry you were at the speaker who droned on and on. Why would you aspire to be like that guy? Make your point and walk away. You will not only make friends you will set a good example.
Step 6 – Make Your Own List
As you observe what works in your monthly staff meeting or weekly division meeting, embrace the things that work and discard those that don’t. If your audience is fixed and the format is solid, keep it in tact. I knew one group that met every week and the people complained it was too often. The supervisor however wanted the consistency of weekly meetings so he instituted a process whereby the first meeting of the month was seated in a meeting room and an hour long. The next three occurred on the Monday of the following three weeks. All of them were held in his office and all members of the team stood -- no sitting. He would briefly give news and updates and then they’d go around the room to each member for status and progress reports for the week. The meetings were a maximum of 15 minutes long. I’ve used this format several times since seeing it done so successfully and I have found it to be very beneficial.
A Positive End Result
Make no mistake here, many companies are meeting-heavy and often call a session at the drop of a hat just to clarify the simplest point. But even those meetings can become productive if the meeting dynamics are considered and steered by an active listening member who can interject the aforementioned ideas and keep things moving along. I’ve been in meetings where I took this role and we were virtually done in half the time. The person who called the meeting will exclaim, “And look at that, we are done in half the time.” I just smile with wonder and say, “Imagine that!”
Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org