Monday, April 12, 2010

Meeting pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Post 464 - Recent studies have found that 16 of the 45 hours that US workers toil every week are “unproductive,” and that the average executive manages to complete only three hours and fifty minutes of constructive work a day. Two different research studies calculate that wasted time loses the US economy $650 billion a year. Office distractions are a serious problem and in my experience, one of the biggest time-wasters is most companies is badly run meetings. Here are a few of the most common problems and some ideas about how to avoid them:

- Lack of clarity about the meeting's purpose.
If you ask many executives why they go to the Monday morning meeting, they'll say "Because it's Monday, and we always have a meeting first thing on Monday." Or they say, "We're going to talk about sales." Both of these answers focus on activities. People who like to believe they're results-focused are often activity-focused instead. The regular get together becomes more important than its original purpose. One way to deal with this is to spend the opening minutes of every meeting clarifying its purpose and what the meeting is supposed to accomplish.

- Is the meeting really necessary?
A meeting is a transaction where something matters. If it doesn't matter, it shouldn't be held. Meetings convened to share FYIs and project updates can be avoided and information shared by email instead. Unless people are going to have some say in what goes on, you're better off sending them a memo telling them what you want them to do.

- Inadequate preparation.
The following should be decided ahead of time: What's the purpose, who's coming, what's going to be decided, who's expected to present, how long will the meeting run, who will chair it, who will take notes and where will it be held. Use a conference room without a phone to avoid disruption. Distribute an agenda to all participants in advance. Label the agenda as "tentative" and ask for changes and additions at the start of the meeting. The two biggest problems in America today are making ends meet and making meetings end.

- Unclear decision-making process.
Often, participants come to the meeting with only a seat-of-the-pants idea of how they're going to reach agreement. Too often, people mistake politeness for consensus. Fearful of being viewed as dissenters and not good team players, they avoid open disagreement. I remember working with technical staff at National Semiconductor in Greenock, Scotland some years ago and being struck by how effective their meetings were. They refused to go forward with any meeting unless the purpose was clear and the process of making decision was agreed to at the very beginning. While this was often trickier than it first appeared, I found it saved an enormous amount of time and frustration later on.

- Jumping to conclusions.
In reaching a decision, groups rarely establish criteria to use in evaluating solutions. Meeting participants are often impatient and don't want to slow down to think though the issues under discussion. Ignoring a systemic analysis, they lobby instead for a favorite preordained outcome. This usually involves a lot of talking and not much listening which produces flawed meeting results.

- Too many egos.
Very often, meetings consist of dramas where conflicts with little to do with the goal of the meeting are played out in public. Issues get decided not on their merits, but on the competing interests of people at the table. Thus, for political reasons, people sometimes end up opposing ideas they otherwise support. If personal conflict is likely to high-jack a meeting, it's best to use informal consultation or one-on-one sessions instead. Then convene a meeting to talk about what they agree on, what they disagree on, and where there are different views about how to proceed. The first and the second just need to be acknowledged, and productive discussion can then focus on reaching agreement about next steps. Areas of clear disagreement between individuals are best resolved outside the meeting room.

Not enough followup.
Meetings don't end until someone is assigned to take action. So always keep a diary of assignments and check on them regularly to be sure they're being carried out. Otherwise, you don't know how effective your meetings actually are.

Here’s a wonderful recipe for wasting time and money, recounted recently by a VP in a high-technology company:
“The new CEO made a big deal out of fast decisions. His staff all had pagers, cell phones, and wireless e-mail, so they could be reached quickly. He really thought just going faster helped. Do you know how we made faster decisions? We excluded the people who knew our customers and our technologies best. People joked about going to marching-order meetings, because they knew there would be no discussion, only instructions. Our big improvement was getting to market faster with products that only sold if we discounted them so much we couldn’t make our profit targets … We made fast decisions, but we didn’t always make smart decisions.”

No comments: