Making the most of meetings

Posted on: November 9, 2010

Most lawyers, surveyors and accountants moan about how many internal meetings they have to attend and what a huge amount of time (and money) is wasted in them. So how do we make our meetings more effective?

Common sense and communication

The professions are bright people. They understand that effective meetings require preparation, objectives, a clear agenda, a chairperson, debate and decisions and minutes – but it rarely happens. So what’s the problem?

The answer, of course, is that people are “too busy”. They often don’t have time to properly research and prepare on a specific project or topic so they gather people together “for a chat” to get the brain juices running. Often, the meeting is to scope an issue and take soundings of other people’s views. In effect, it isn’t a “meeting” that they need but just some “heads up” time. And this can be achieved in less formal and less time expensive ways than a meeting and all that it entails.

Another angle is that meetings are a time when people from disparate parts of the firm come together to exchange ideas and/or to brief more junior members of the team on key developments. These communication opportunities can sometimes be achieved in more effective ways than a formal meeting (have a think about teleconferencing, webinars, teleconferences, awaydays, socials, internal communication tools like Yammer, intranets, team break outs or simply “walking about” etc).

How long?

Why do people always schedule an hour for meetings? Why not 15 minutes or 30 minutes or 45 minutes? Or, if you record your time in 6 minute chunks – what about 12, 18, 24 or 36 minute meetings? Perhaps set the meeting so that people are in the room at 10am for a prompt 1015am start – that way those who didn’t get around to preparing can do so and you have built in time for any catching up or settling down behaviour.

And we all use electronic calendars (!) – with reminders that can be set to provide an early warning time of 15 minutes or more. A little bit of diary management and we can ensure that we allocate preparation time for meetings so that we don’t turn up in a raging hurry from the previous meeting having done no preparation.

And while it seems to be OK for meetings to over run, why don’t we more often have people say “All done – and with 20 minutes time left. Aren’t we efficient?”

How often?

I’ve also noticed that many firms have “regular” slots for meetings – every Monday morning, every last Thursday of the month and so on.

I know that it is important to maintain the impetus on certain initiatives but are they ALL really necessary? How often are the regular meetings challenged with something like “Do we actually need to get together this week/month? – Let’s hold off until next month and we can hold the only agenda item til them as it isn’t urgent”.

Better still, if it has been agreed at a previous meeting that someone will do something, aren’t we all grown up enough to assume that they WILL actually do it without being checked up on at the next meeting (Yes, I realise that this sadly often isn’t the case in the professions – but I can dream can’t I?).

Or, being even more radical, why doesn’t the department head or project leader simply call or pop into those who agreed to complete actions to check up that they have done so and to agree the next steps?

Learn from other industries

I remember being impressed when I was invited to the launch of British Airways’ Waterside offices several years ago. The meetings rooms didn’t have chairs and the tables were higher to accommodate standing people. If people can’t sit down the meetings are likely to be shorter.

And another thing, why waste time at the start of meetings getting cups of coffee and other refreshments – can’t this be done in non meeting times?

Influencers but not decision makers

Too often there are way too many people at meetings. Often in the professions it isn’t easy to identify who is actually responsible for a particular topic and to sort the “would like to be involved” folk from the “I am involved and will actually do something” people. Therefore there is a cast of thousands at a meeting, rather than the handful of people who really need to be there.

This can be easily addressed by sending information to the wider group of people and asking only those with a responsibility or real need to be present to attend the meeting. If your minutes are good then those with a passing interest can learn what was discussed and agreed and comment afterwards if necessary.

Role models and power plays

If the most senior people ensure that they are ready at the start of the meeting, having read the relevant papers in advance and focus on keeping to the agenda and time allocation then you can be pretty confident that everyone else will do the same. Obvious really.

There is also a tendency for the most senior people to chair the meetings. But they often lack the skills or desire to manage the time effectively – possibly for fear of upsetting or appearing to cut short one of their peer partners.

However, I have observed that in many firms often the most senior folk are amongst the last to arrive. And the excuse “Sorry – I was on a call to a client” seems to prevent anyone from challenging their tardy arrival and the disruption it causes (I don’t think I am the only one who wants to throttle the late arriving partner who says “I may have missed it at the beginning but…”. I always want to say “Yes, you did miss it and we aren’t going over it again”).

Culture

On a more serious note, does your senior management and culture support strict adherence to basic meeting manners? It might be that you prepare a simple “Meeting Rules Sheet” on which a few basic guidelines are written to which everyone (yes, that means you) adheres. Much easier to point to the agreed behaviours when challenging non conformance.

It takes 21 days to break an old habit and create a new one. So how about a concerted effort on better meetings by a month long campaign on “Better meetings” to allow everyone the opportunity to try doing things differently – and better?

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