Putting the meat in meetings Featured

8:00pm EDT June 29, 2006
Noted author, speaker and consultant Peter Drucker said that running a productive meeting is one of the basic skills of effective executives. Yet most people think of internal business meetings as they are portrayed in Dilbert cartoons. A few companies have even attempted to ban internal meetings during core hours to improve productivity. That is not the answer, says Joel Adams, CEO and founder of Devon Consulting of Wayne, Pa.

“Managers must learn how to make meetings into efficient decision making processes, not time wasters,” Adams says.

Smart Business spoke with him about some of the biggest problems with today’s business meetings.


Why do so many people hate business meetings?
Business meetings usually don’t resolve an issue with a vote by all of the participants. The issue is resolved when the decision maker makes the decision. Many business meetings are frustrating because the attendees are seeking consensus. They are looking for a decision that everyone agrees with.

I also see lots of meetings that are pointless or just not very productive.


What is your definition of a productive meeting?
A meeting is productive when it accomplishes its objective of reaching a decision on one or more issues. But it is also necessary to assign the action items necessary to implement the decision. That means everyone leaves the meeting knowing what is expected of them and when it needs to be finished. The simple who, what and when.


If it is so simple, why is it so rare?
Some meetings that resolve issues are still terribly inefficient. Sometimes people can take an hour accomplishing something that should have taken only 10 minutes. If that is the case, it is probably just poor meeting management.


So how does one go about managing meetings better?
First, the purpose for the meeting needs to be clear to everyone. This is usually accomplished by the meeting notice and by the agenda. If there are a number of issues to be resolved, they should all be on the agenda. If there is no agenda, the meeting is likely to be inefficient or unproductive or both.

Second, make sure that everyone who needs to be in the meeting is present at the meeting. By ‘present,’ I mean not only physically in the room or on the conference call, but contributing to the discussion. If someone is quiet or timid by nature, or if they just want to avoid conflict, they need to be drawn out by the meeting manager. Even the quietest voice must be heard.

Third, stick to the time limits. If there are several items on the agenda, set separate time limits on each. If there is a chance you won’t complete the entire agenda, make sure the important items are scheduled first.


But what if the discussion just goes on longer than anticipated?
If the discussion is going off track, the leader needs to stop the speaker and put the discussion back on track. Sometimes the discussion is on the correct subject but is repetitive. Some people need to ‘pile on’ on the same side of an issue as everyone else. It is OK for the meeting leader to interrupt a speaker as long as you are polite about it.


What do you do if the argument gets heated?
Discussions should get heated if people are passionate about their company. To resolve an issue, opposing points of view are required. It just can’t be personal. And sometimes participants can get frustrated and angry if they don’t understand the process. It may be necessary to remind everyone that there is a decision maker in the room and that everyone else’s role is to contribute the information as well as their own perspective so the decision maker can decide. But if there is no conflict of opinions or ideas, the meeting is probably wasting time.


So, do all of your meetings end on time?
Sometimes my decision is that I need more information. But, if you have set the time limit correctly, a decision should be made. The Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in at some point, and additional discussion or information won’t improve the quality of the decision enough to offset the time spent on further discussion. Delegation is a great tool because you can usually delegate the decision to the person who will have to do the most work implementing the decision. They will be more committed to implementing it successfully if it was their decision.


Any final thoughts on meetings?
Running good meetings is an essential managerial skill. If you don’t already have it, you must develop it, or else you are setting very low limits on your career.


JOEL ADAMS is the CEO and founder of Devon Consulting (www.devonconsulting.com), a professional staffing firm serving the IT and clinical trial industries. Reach Adams at (610) 964-5703 or jadams@devonconsulting.com.