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Making Meeting More Productive

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A productive meeting can yield many benefits to the participants and the organization as a whole: problems get solved, strategic plans are created and useful information is exchanged and capitalized upon. Unfortunately, more and more of us find ourselves mired in meetings that are, at the very least, a total waste of time.

The fact is, productive meetings don't just happen – they are the result of careful planning during which the who, why, what, where and how are carefully put into consideration. To ensure all these factors are covered, First Aid for Meetings author Charlie Hawkins suggests we pay attention to the four “F” words that comprise an effective meeting: focus, facilitation, fellowship and feedback.

Focus On What Matters
As tempting as it is to try and cover as much ground as possible, meetings tend to accomplish more when centered on a single purpose or objective. This is why even meetings that will require people to do a lot of creative thinking need to set parameters to keep participants from going off-course. As your meeting's roadmap, the agenda is key to navigating the discussion and making sure everyone stays on track. The most effective agendas are those prepared and distributed ahead of time, at least 24 hours prior and ideally two or three days before the meeting. This not only gives participants ample time to get ready for the meeting, it also gives them a chance to put themselves in the right mindset. And even prior to distribution, the agenda can also serve as a guide for who should be invited to the meeting. For too many managers, however, an agenda is simply a list of topics to be discussed. To make an agenda truly work, Managerial Impact principal Tracy Peterson Turner suggests allotting timeframes for each item in the agenda. Doing this will help you and the rest of the meeting participants stay focused on the topics and eliminate overly long discussions or the fear that there won't be time to touch upon some items in the agenda. Give priority items the most time, and allot just sufficient time to touch on the less important items. Given the spontaneous nature of meetings, however, be ready to make time adjustments. It may be necessary – and advisable – to spend more than the allotted time to ensure that the priority items are completely addressed, but as Hawkins warned, just be aware of the tradeoffs.

Direction Via Facilitation
If the agenda is the roadmap, the facilitator is the navigator who makes sure the meeting does not stray from the objective. The facilitator does not necessarily have to be the person who formulated the agenda or called the meeting. In fact, there can be advantages in assigning someone who will not be taking an active part in the meeting – not only can this person keep an eye on the time, he or she can also objectively bring the meeting back in focus if it starts going off tangent. A facilitator can work the agenda, keep the group focused and attend to group maintenance, such as encouraging everyone to participate.

Ideally, the organization will train several group members in facilitation skills and rotate the assignment. If you are part of a team or department that holds regular meetings with essentially the same group of people, consider giving each member of the group an opportunity to facilitate. This exposure is can be a good exercise for developing professionalism and expand the skills of your team members.

Fellowship Fosters Better Results
No matter what the purpose of the meeting, it is essentially a gathering of people. The more engaged the participants are, the more active and appropriate their participation is likely to be. This is why experienced meeting facilitators often start meetings by asking each participant to introduce or give updates about themselves or their group. “In effective meetings, people share more than information, ideas and opinions,” says Hawkins. “They share information about themselves and relate to one another on a human level. The better participants know each other, the better they will understand how and why their "meeting mates" respond the way they do.” Hawkins also adds that fellowship can mean having fun: Sharing amusing, work-related stories and anecdotes can encourage understanding among meeting participants. Don't be afraid to experiment with group games or other fun activities.

Feedback for the Future
“In effective meetings, participants are aware of how the group is doing as well as what is getting accomplished,” says Hawkins. The facilitator solicits feedback from participants on time issues, agenda management and group maintenance. One may ask, "How are we doing?" Or, "We're out of time on this issue – shall we continue, or wrap it up and move on?" This not only keeps participants involved, but also keeps the meeting on track.

Hawkins also suggests encouraging constructive feedback from participants at the end of each meeting to gain insights into what can be done better next time. Ask positive questions such as, "What did we do that worked well?" and "How could we make the next meeting better?" soliciting opinions has two advantages: it gives you a foundation for planning on an even more productive meeting, and, it shows participants that you value what they have to say.

Back to Basics
While focus, facilitation, fellowship and feedback sufficiently sum up the components of a productive meeting, there are times when we have to be reminded of the obvious, or, to stay on the F-word theme, the ‘Fundamentals’. “Many common problems associated with meetings could be avoided by establishing some basic ground rules,” says author and professional motivator Sue Morem. “This way, everyone operates from a common set of expectations.” Some fundamental rules noted by Morem include:

  • Begin and end on time
  • Focus all comments on agenda items
  • Refrain from interrupting while others are talking
  • Stick to one conversation and avoid making side comments
  • Turn off all pagers and cell phones
  • Arrive for the meeting prepared and willing to participate
  • Resist unscheduled speeches
  • Initiate no personal attacks

And lastly, says Morem, “if you prepare well and get full participation, you must follow through after the meeting – otherwise, you run the risk of not achieving your purpose.” The work continues after the meeting is over, when true productivity is measured.

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