Why is it we waste so much time in business meetings? Why do we spend twenty minutes discussing something that we all agree on? Why are we unclear as to what needs to be done? Why can people run whole corporations with hundreds of people and millions of dollars on one hour meetings when we can’t run academic or professional society meetings in anything like that time?
Part of the problem may be that we are not professionals at running meetings. Another part of the problem is the participants are not organized in a clear hierarchy, so everyone wants their say. Here I am considering specifically business meetings of society executive committees, or academic departments, not brainstorming, creative, or planning meetings which have their own set of issues.
Some people like to use Robert’s Rules of Order and run everything by motions and votes with specified discussion periods. I’ve never been involved in a meeting that was run exclusively in this way, though I did read through Robert’s Rules of Order when I became department chair.
A clear agenda with times on it is a good start. People differ on whether the most important things should go first or last. I think it is best to put them first because sometimes if it seems there is a lot of time, discussion will be too long on straightforward items.
It is really crucial that items be differentiated as to whether action is needed or information is simply being provided. If nothing needs to be done, then transfer the information by documents with minimal discussion.
If you look around, there are actually some good sources of information for running clear meetings. Dummies has some information that is useful to some. Many universities give their own advice. Here are a few links, here, here, and here. As is the case with so many other things, once you realize meetings can be run effectively, you will discover all the material that is out there. Go for it!
Here are 10 points that might help.
1. Only hold a meeting if you have complex issues that need discussion and subsequent action. Restrict the meeting to these issues.
2. Be sure everyone has full information in written form in advance of the meeting.
3. Informal discussions outside the meeting in advance can alert members to problems, but are dangerous because they can be exclusive.
4. Have an agenda with time allotments allocated to each item. If discussion needs to extend, revisit the issue at the end of the meeting if there is time.
5. Have someone take notes. This person should have a tape recorder running.
6. Be sure to hear every voice. Some people will talk out while others wait to be called on. Be attentive to the contributions of quiet people.
7. Keep the discussion focused. If it wanders, gently bring the discussion back to topic. If an issue only involves a subset of the group, encourage them to talk later. If an important topic comes up unexpectedly, add it to the agenda at the end of the meeting or save it for another time.
9. Make sure each person assigned tasks during the meeting knows exactly what those tasks are and has a deadline for meeting them.
10. Followup after the meeting is crucial. Pass out the minutes by email right after the meeting taking care to make sure the action items stand out. Make sure everyone approves the minutes.