Improving Productivity, Participation and Satisfaction in Business Meetings

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In my years of teaching organizational and leadership communication one recurring topic centers on the challenge of conducting effective business meetings. Meetings are one of the commonly dreaded chores for many employees and far too many meetings deserve the disdain. Poor meeting performance can negatively impact productivity, derail decision-making and forward moves, damage employee morale and become a festering problem that drains attention, resources and valuable work time with only negative outcomes to show for the investment.Dr Robert Chandler 2015 bio

Over the decades, I have read/reviewed numerous academic and scholarly studies about meetings as well as read a long list of popular professional viewpoints on steps to improve meeting performance. While the body of literature is too large to attempt to summarize in these few short paragraphs, I thought it might be helpful (to someone) to hit a few of the more frequently mentioned “tips” which have been recommend for improving productivity, participation and participant satisfaction in business meetings. I am confident that I picked these ideas up from many others over the years, so I defer credit to numerous unknown sources for the following 10 key ideas.

  1. Purpose

Every meeting should have a purpose and end-goal. Objectiveless meetings (meeting just to meet) are not only pointless (literally) but are a drain on time, morale and other resources which could be more productively devoted to other tasks and mission-critical purposes. Each meeting should have a focus and purpose. Ideally, there should only be one central or core objective for the meeting. Never call or organize a meeting without knowing what you seek to accomplish in that session. It is inherently important to know why you are scheduling a meeting.

Does the meeting really need to be held? Having fewer (but better) meetings can provide a breakthrough for increasing productivity, participation when you do hold a meeting and overall satisfaction. Schedule a meeting only when it is necessary for the purpose and objective. Before scheduling a group meeting, ask yourself whether you can achieve your goal in some other way, perhaps through a one-on-one discussion with someone, a telephone conference call, or a simple exchange of emails.

All too often, “meetings” are held to merely update or passively share informational items. If you leave a meeting without having had discussion and interaction and/or any post-meeting action steps, you should question the value of the meeting. A meeting to “share updates” should be replaced with a memo, website update, bulletin board posting, email or voicemail message.

Sue Shellenberger wrote in “The Plan to End Boring Meetings” (Wall Street Journal, 12-21-2016, A11) that managers often invite too many people to attend meetings, as well as ask people to attend the meetings for the wrong reasons resulting in far too many oversized groups that fail to work together effectively. She suggested that the number of meeting participants should be adjusted based on the core purpose of the meeting. Doing so, she argues, may lead to faster and better decisions as well as more engaged employees. Here are her categories of recommendations for number of participants to ask to attend each type of meeting for maximum positive outcomes:

Weighing a problem meeting – 4 to 6 People

Invite enough people to bring needed expertise, without including so many that discussion files off course Each participant should have a role to play….

Making a decision – 4 to 7 people

….For every additional participant over seven, the likelihood of making a sound decision goes down by 10%. According to Michael Mankins, a partner at Bane and Co. “By the time, you get to 17 people, the changes of your actually making a decision are zero….”

Setting the agenda – 5 to 15 people

Another kind of meeting, the daily agenda-setting session, should be brief and vary in size, based on how big your team is. These brief gatherings, often called huddles or stand-up meetings, usually involve only the people who have a logical reason to be there because their work or cooperation is critical to the day’s agenda.

Brainstorming – 10 to 20 people

Sprinkle the list of invitees with people from different backgrounds and social networks to spark diverse ideas…..Brainstorming participants tend to resist throwing out risky or novel ideas because they’re worried about what others might think….[One expert] suggests giving participants time in advance to write down ideas and submit them anonymously before the meeting.

  1. Plan

Every meeting should have a plan, developed in advance that answers the basic who, what, when, how and why questions about the meeting. It should lay out how these are communicated in advance to attendees as well as how these will be accomplished in the meeting itself. Perhaps giving a meeting sub-titles could help achieve the goal of sharing the plan for the meeting (e.g. a brainstorming meeting or a timeline development meeting, etc.). include in the plan the method and message of calling the meeting or inviting (requiring) attendance. Attendees should understand in advance “why” they are part of the meeting participants and what to expect in terms of time commitment, preparation or resources to have ready.

Review previous meetings and previous feedback as you plan the meeting. Learn how to improve meetings by reviewing past presentations and identifying aspects to discard or incorporate into the meeting plan for the next meeting.

Anticipate how much time is required to accomplish the purpose and objectives of the meeting. Set the start and stop time accordingly. Select a meeting space (room) that has appropriate work space (table, sufficient chairs, necessary A/V equipment, etc.). Be prepared. Meetings are work, so, just as in any other work activity, the better prepared you are for them, the better the results you can expect.

There may be certain times (and days) during the week that work best for the meeting. Try to systematically analyze and anticipate the “better” days and times for scheduling a meeting based on the invited attendee’s assignments, duties and other work conflicts. If you use a software calendar – scheduler (e.g. MS Outlook) – don’t schedule a meeting to occur the next minute after a previous meeting or appointment is scheduled to end. This is impractical and unrealistic. Depending on the organizational culture, it may be normative for meetings to routinely “run long” so that some sense of transition time is reasonable. As you schedule meetings, building in 15 minutes of travel time between meetings can be helpful, particularly if attendees are coming from different floors in the building, different buildings or even different campuses to attend the meeting.

  1. Descriptive Agenda

Write a one-page summary of the purpose and plan for the meeting. Before the meeting begins, share the one-page summary of the major points that you want to cover during your meeting. This enables employees to know what is expected from them, helps keep the meeting on-track and consistent with the purpose and plan, and results in employees having a better understanding of what to expect in the meeting. Also, this will help reduce any anxieties or fears among your workers and prevent any rumors from spreading before the meeting begins.

An agenda can play a critical role in the success of any meeting. It shows participants where the meeting is going. It is usually best to distribute the agenda and any preparation assignments in advance of the meeting. Research has found that “mystery” meetings tend to have lower levels of motivation, participation and satisfaction than focused and purposeful meetings where the participants understand the why and what expectations of the meeting.

The descriptive agenda should not be an itemized list of specific points but rather a general overview that help set the tone and expectations of what is about to occur. In fact, the person running the meeting may want to have a very detailed personal agenda for the meeting but the one distributed publicly should be general in orientation not detail specific.

  1. Start the Meeting

It is important to signal that the meeting has begun. Have a formal threshold to let everyone know that the context has shifted into “meeting mode” and that other activities and small talk should cease and attention turned to the agenda of the meeting. Start the meeting on time. There are many reasons to do this, including: making best use of limited time, signals that the meeting is important, sets expectations about the business purpose of the meeting, overtime tends to encourage prompt attendance and sets up the expectation that the meeting will end on time as well.

  1. Participation

One of the core concepts of a meeting is that there is a level of synergy possible which is potentially greater than a single person or two-people considering the topic, subject or idea of the meeting. Thus, it is essential to create a climate to foster engagement, participation and interaction for a meeting to be truly successful. This requires setting aside sufficient time as well as a skillful facilitator to lead the meeting with a goal of fostering participation.

State explicitly that the goal of the meeting is to achieve participation. Establish ground rules that empower all viewpoints to be expressed. Focus on the substantive discussion and topic at hand, not on personalities, procedures or distractions.

  1. Facilitation

A meeting leader should function as a facilitator. One tactic business leaders use to avoid inadvertently dominating a meeting is by delegating meeting leadership. Consider whether it is advantageous to assign the meeting management responsibility to someone else, perhaps to build subordinates skills. Other leaders tend to rotate the meeting leader position to other staff in subsequent meetings, which will help them improve their management skills. The delegated personal should have some training and experience in facilitation. Here are a few guidelines which facilitators should consider:

  • Keep the meeting on topic. When there are an abundant amount of people in a meeting, it can be difficult to stay on topic. Prepare accordingly. If you find that the meeting isn’t going anywhere or someone is off on a tangent, politely circle back to the important topic that needs to be addressed. Meetings can easily get off track and stay off track. The role of the facilitator is to keep the meeting on track.
  • Ask Useful Questions. To prepare, write a list of questions that relates to the purpose and objectives of the meeting. If you ask a question and no one answers it, make sure you ask for clarification or push to get an answer that keeps the focus on the subject matter issues.
  • Verbally reward participation. Compliment and express appreciation for those who are engaging and helping advance the goal and purpose of the meeting discussion.
  • Provide constructive feedback for those who are not engaging and advancing the purpose of the meeting. Manage the participants trying to dominate the meeting. Do not let a few people take control of your meetings. Instead, create a friendly atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable expressing their opinions.
  • Allow for sufficient Wait-Time. Sometimes interactive discussion is slow to start (other times the opposite is the challenge). When you ask a question, don’t shortly thereafter answer it yourself. A silent pause in the room may feel awkward but research and experience has demonstrated that that conversation gap is best filled by one of the participants who, after hesitation, begins to offer input.
  • Vary the meeting format. Incorporate some variety in the meetings and do not do the same thing the same way all the time. Be flexible when asking for, receiving and considering suggestions on improving meetings. One interesting technique which I have read about are “standing meetings,” which are meetings in which people gather and remain standing rather than being seated around a conference table. The rationale is that frivolous distractions and longwinded speeches are less likely and there may be grater motivation to focus on the issues and create the action-item lists. If you want a meeting to be short and efficient, a standing meeting might be an option. Another format which I have observed is the “walking meeting.” The walking meeting is conducted while the group “walks.” It has similar advantages to the “standing meeting” but with the added bonus of visiting a work station, lab, classroom or production line on-site is that is appropriate for the purpose of the meeting.
  1. Closure Communication

Don’t end the meeting right away when the discussion wanes. Don’t just finish saying what you want to say and then leave. Typically, there are still good ideas yet unspoken that can be elicited or someone may not fully understand how their idea fits the needs of the meeting. Again, be patient and persistent even if attendees are quiet.

At the end of every meeting, go around and review the action steps each person has captured. Some facilitators also ask for closure observations about the meeting itself or next steps needed to advance the meeting goal and objectives. The exercise takes a small amount of time per person, and is usually well worth the summative feedback.

  1. Action Item List

Create an action item list of specific follow-up steps and measures that have arisen during the meeting. Do not assume that everyone will informally remember the various action items slated for follow through. Assign a person’s name as the responsible person to accomplish the action item. This better ensures accountability that it will be accomplished.

It is also helpful to produce notes or “minutes” from each meeting. Don’t just assume that all participants are going to take their assignments to heart and remember all the details. Instead, be sure that someone has agreed to take on the job of record keeping. Immediately after the meeting, summarize the outcome of the meeting, as well as assignments and timelines, and email a copy of this summary to all attendees.

  1. End the Meeting

Start on time and end on time. Everyone has suffered through meetings that went way beyond the scheduled ending time. That situation would be fine if no one had anything else to do at work. But in these days of faster and more flexible organizations, everyone always has plenty of work on the to-do list. If you announce the length of the meeting and then stick to it, fewer participants will keep looking at their watches, and more participants will take an active role in your meetings.

  1. Assessment

Get feedback. Every meeting has room for improvement. Typically, you want to capture two types of feedback, so structure your data collection methods accordingly. Summative feedback focuses on evaluating the meeting and all aspects of it as it unfolded. This is evaluative feedback from meeting attendees on how the meeting went right for them — and how it went wrong. Was the meeting too long? Did one person dominate the discussion? Were attendees unprepared? Were the items on the agenda unclear? Formative feedback focuses on changes to the meeting plan, procedures and processes that should be implemented or adapted for the next (future) meeting to be held. These would include suggestions for improvements or changes to the way that things were or have been done in the past.

Summary

Time is a precious resource, and it is too expensive to needlessly waste it. With the amount of time devoted to business meetings in organizations, it is appropriate to focus on improving the productivity, participation and satisfaction with meetings.

These are just a few suggestions for improving the performance of the time spent in meetings. It is a win-win opportunity to improve productivity, gain participation and enhance everyone’s satisfaction levels.

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