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Making Meetings Work

By Karen Carney


Meetings are windows on the soul of business: they reveal the quality of its management. Well-organized, well-conducted meetings bespeak an effective organization. Meetings afflicted with sloppy planning, flimsy agendas, and fuzzy expectations indicate a not-so-effective one. Here are some tips for tightening and energizing your meetings:

Prepare Smartly At Intel Corporation (San Jose, CA.), those who call a meeting must first assess whether the meeting is necessary. They'll e-mail ideas to a few people for comments and suggestions, draft an agenda, then distribute it to a wider audience for revisions. The result is a one-pager containing the meeting's purpose and goals, subtopics with time frames for each, a list of attendees, and what each one should bring to the table. It's distributed in advance to attendees and to the appropriate business-unit chief, who might later check it for quality.We know from experience that 80% of the hard work gets done before the meeting even begins," says Michael Fors, Intel's corporate employee-development manager. We're all responsible for using our time effectively, and we're aware of the opportunity costs.

Let the Agenda Dictate the Setting and Pace

You don't always have to meet in an airless conference room. Senior executives at Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta gather each morning in the hallway outside the president's office for a ten minute "quality talk." Managers at Cabletron Systems (Rochester, NH.) have mastered the art of the stand-up meeting – no seats, just solutions. The food teams at Whole Goods Market stores meet weekly to forecast the financials – but when they're behind schedule, they might meet in the frozen-food aisle. Get creative; shake things up. Consider hosting your next brainstorming session outdoors.

Roles and Rules

Create roles and policies to stimulate discussion and keep it on track. A facilitator equipped with a watch or egg timer leads the discussion. A scribe takes notes on a dry-erase board. Intel also has a gatekeeper who makes sure everyone has a chance to speak. Of course, employees need to feel they can speak honestly without retribution. Springfield ReManufacturing Corp. (Springfield, MO.) has a no-griping policy to ensure that comments are positive and objective. At Foldraft Co. (Kenyon, MN.), managers dressed as referees call timeout when speakers at all-company meetings stray from the topic at hand.

Follow Up ?At the close of Intel's meetings, attendees are encouraged to mentally answer questions posted on conference room walls. Why was I here? What was my role? Was I well prepared? What was resolved? The process helps people clarify their thoughts so they can contribute to the meeting-minutes document, which is posted on internal Web pages within 24 hours. This one-page summary lists key issues, decisions made (and by whom), action items by owner, expected results, firm deadlines, and the next meeting date – all for tracking purposes.

Challenge Employees to Improve Meetings

Develop success criteria for each of your meetings. An executive briefing, for example, may have different objectives than a brainstorming session. Then get people involved in evaluation and improvement. "Meeting effectiveness is a line item on our team development scorecards because we want to know how it impacts team deliverables," says Intel's Fors. "We also have annual culture surveys at the business-unit level to assess how well we execute action plans."

We Have to Stop Meeting Like This

According to surveys by the Wharton Center for Applied Research, managers report that only 56% of their meetings are productive – and that 25% would have been more effective as conference calls, memos, e-mails, or voicemails. Conclusion: the cost of misguided meetings is high. When meetings aren't paying off, explore your options and make substitutions, CEO Kris Kile of Total Restoration (Amherst, NH.) switched to a combination of broadcast voicemail and follow-up memos when the cost-to-payoff ration for weekly meetings shot up. "As we added people, our 30-minute sessions started costing us 10 hours of overtime per week, or the equivalent of 15 person-hours," he explains. "Now I deliver short, focused pep talks by voicemails whenever necessary, I'll describe our current financial picture and remind people of our goals. To reinforce the learning, we attach a summary of our critical cost-of-sales numbers to their weekly pay stubs." The system is easier – and much less costly.

If You Want to Learn More...

The Big Book of Business Games: Icebreakers, Creativity Exercises, and Meeting Energizers by John W. Newstrom and Edward E. Scannell (1996-McGraw-Hill, 170pp. $17.95. Tel. 800.352.3566 or 212.512.4100). An oversized paperback jammed with more than 70 games and activities designed to spice up meetings and presentations. A helpful first stop for managers who want to learn about the latest technology used to facilitate real-time (multi location) and Internet meetings.