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Chapter 1. Overview of the Meeting Process

Introduction

Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie, authors of Getting Rich in America, have this advice concerning schooling: your goal should be to discover not only what is financially rewarding, but also intellectually satisfying to you. How do you do that?

  1. Select a wide range of academic topics, thus increasing your choices for career paths.

  2. Remember that broad education produces well-rounded employees with the versatility to advance in organizations.

  3. Take advantage of specialized training employers offer.

What sorts of graduates are hired? These employers hire those with good general education and efficient learning skills as evidenced by degree completion, good grades, and well-chosen coursework. A further hiring factor is the peer group or cohort with whom students associate while in school. To complete a degree in the company of those who compete, cooperate, and thrive in the zeitgeist of college years is a mark of achievement. Showing the ability to influence and lead that cohort group produces an even stronger track record.

How do you favorably influence your peer group before or after graduation?

What arena provides an opportunity to showcase these attributes? Meeting management!

Think about it: few people see you at your desk writing reports or telephoning or using your computer productively. They do see the results of these activities, but it's hard to ascribe leadership capability to a desk-sitter. To be perceived as a competent, capable leader on a campus or in an organization, you need to leave your desk and get in front of a group, leading them to do something worthwhile. Managing meetings is definitely a step in the right direction.

Importance of Meeting Management

How important is it to manage meetings efficiently? Some estimates of time spent in business meetings range from 40 to 60 percent. Nearly half of most managers' work hours are spent in meetings! What are the usual complaints about meetings? "Boring!" "Off the topic!" "Waste of time!" Most of us have endured poorly run meetings in which the communication goes in circles, and nothing is accomplished. Yet, how much time, energy, and money do we spend meeting? Most organizations spend between 7 and 15 percent of personnel budgets on meetings. Community groups are literally run by meetings. Much of this effort may be volunteer, so there may not be a monetary cost, but there is a time cost, and time is a valuable resource to most people. Let's look at time spent at work.

In essence, if you have a paying job, you rent out a certain number of hours of your daily life to your employer. Your employer expects a certain amount of accomplishment during those hours, given your training and work ethic. As an employee, you expect management to supply the necessary resources you need to accomplish your work: adequate supplies, equipment in good working order, guidance in how the company wants the work done, and an evaluation procedure to tell when you succeed or fail.

Where does meeting management fall in all this? After all, don't most people know how to communicate? Isn't it logical to assume that if people know how to talk to one another, groups of people ought to be able to get together, come to decisions, and go on with their other work? Besides, email messaging and chat rooms are available now; maybe we don't even need meetings anymore. The end result is using human communication skills productively in the work environment. Granted, we can reduce communication to its lowest common denominator through this thinking. However, this thought pattern fails to recognize the complexity of human beings and our society. A key word in the end result statement is "productively." Many meetings are unnecessary, for example when things could be accomplished through other means, there's no reason to meet, the wrong people attend, or there's not enough time to prepare properly. In these instances, spare everyone and don't have a meeting.

On the other hand, most organizations couldn't function without meetings. Across America, leaders are guiding small groups of people through the process of communicating in a limited time frame. People have to communicate in groups to get things done. Sitting down face to face with group members is an effective way to accomplish tasks. When people gather to communicate, they can react to others' comments, ask questions, voice arguments, process information, and ultimately produce better decisions. They can pool their knowledge and experiences, so that the group becomes more than the sum of its parts.

A further plus for quality meetings is that they meet workers' needs for feeling part of a group or being a team member. People have a need for togetherness, trust, and belonging, and the meeting process fosters this. In today's cubically-organized and computer-oriented work world, meetings ease loneliness and help distribute the workload. Effective meetings help develop a sense of commitment to organizations, as well as a feeling of contributing solutions to a problem - a sense of having accomplished something worthwhile. Even if solutions proposed are not what all group members originally supported, at least they feel "heard" through the process and are more likely to support the solution selected after group deliberation. Sometimes meetings provide the only time members see themselves as a group. With flexible hours, varying work shifts, telecommuting, and persons essentially operating as solo units of responsibility especially in government and higher education organizations, group experiences affect how people feel about their organization. Meetings also have a ripple effect throughout organizations in that one manager or faculty member or GS 7 government employee returning from a frustrating time or a well-orchestrated event may impact 15 other managers, 30 students in a classroom, or a 50-person department. Thus, meetings can be tremendously positive or negative in organizations. Improving meetings can improve not only communication, but also morale and productivity in the workforce.

An added benefit to learning to conduct efficient and effective meetings is the benefit to your image. When others see you "in action" in meetings, they form opinions about your competence based on what they see and hear. If you are able to sift information to find the issues that matter, get groups to deliberate these issues, and get consensus on decisions with these issues, you can become known as a skillful leader. Another consideration which should interest you is that leading a group - that is, determining meeting process and content - is very powerful. If you can control the process - who speaks, how long they can speak, guiding decision making, and summarizing - you can determine to a large extent what happens. Process can control content, and that's the core of meeting management. Once you learn how to manage meetings, you can manage them anywhere: churches, homes, support groups, neighborhood associations, youth groups, civic organizations, as well as your workplace. Key to good management is preparing for meetings. In this resource, you will find guidance on organizing your message and presenting it effectively, so that people listen and are persuaded by your words and your presence. You will learn how to conduct information-giving, problem-solving, and decision-making meetings. The structure provided is one you can take anywhere and adapt to your setting.

Structure for Three Types of Meetings

Normally, of course, these three segments might occur in one meeting, depending on the issues involved. Here, however, the three meeting types are considered separately in order to bring out instructional details inherent in each type. In the first meeting described, you will learn presentation skills, structuring information for an oral delivery, and writing a meeting agenda, including a meeting objective. In the problem-solving instruction, you will learn more about planning an interactive meeting, delegating meeting roles for those in attendance, and influencing groups. In the decision-making meeting, you will learn how to frame a decision so that a problem can be examined from several angles, establish criteria for quality decisions, and deal with various types of people who impede the meeting process. You'll be given guidelines for performance in each meeting type, plus observer sheets and critique forms. Since efficiency is a concern along with effectiveness, limit information meetings to ten minutes, problem solving to twenty minutes, and decision making to thirty minutes.

For fast improvement, videotape yourself conducting meetings. Initially people balk at this, but most literally see the benefit. This will teach you more than any other thing about your effectiveness as a meeting leader. Most people discover that they come across far better externally than they felt internally during a videotaped meeting. Remember that you're not trying for broadcast quality performances here! You're using a feedback technique for self-improvement. An interesting closure step after completing the three segments is to view your videotape in one sitting. You'll be amazed at your improvement! A comment form to solemnize your achievement is included.

The meeting process described here has been field tested for a number of years with students at Purdue University. Their comments and feedback have been in-corporated into this text and the methods presented here. Their classroom performances have improved incrementally as they developed into public speakers and meeting leaders. Invariably, near the end of this coursework, students smile more and act very much at ease during their meetings. A standard answer on a class evaluation question, "What will you take with you from this course?" is this: "I feel so good knowing how to set up meetings and then carry them out. I'm really confident I'll be able to do this well in the future." And so will you!

In summary, then, we've established that students should get a broad education as well as having a specialty area to be a well-rounded employee. Employers look for evidence of your ability to lead, which you can show through meeting management. Meetings are important to organizations and give company-wide notice of your professional competence. This resource illustrates three types of meetings: information giving, problem solving, and decision making.

Selecting a Topic

Some readers of this resource will have built-in opportunities to practice the techniques and methods detailed here. If you are the presiding officer of a club, chairing a committee, managing a business, or pastoring a church, you have issues and opportunities to try out these guidelines for managing meetings. If you already have issues, use them. However, if you want to practice a bit before trying your "meeting wings," select a topic to use in working through the three meeting segments detailed in this resource. In general, this section will help crystallize your thinking about the process used in setting up meetings.

Information Meeting Considerations

You need a topic on which you can find enough material to present a fairly detailed ten-minute information meeting. The material needs to divide logically into three major areas for the purposes of your first presentation. Then, consider what problem lies in this topic, since you'll have to parlay your information into a problem-solving format for the second segment. The third segment, decision making, is a matter of choosing among alternatives developed in the problem-solving meeting, so this segment doesn't play into your choice of topics quite so much. Remember that the major input of information comes during your first meeting, but you need to know enough about your topic to answer whatever questions may occur during problem solving and decision making. In the last two meetings, you basically introduce yourself and repeat the highlights of your information talk, but the structure in the last two meetings usually requires a major portion of time. It is nice to "freshen" your material with a new fact or two!

A caveat, however, is not to select a topic in which choices are limited.

Problem-Solving Tips

For example, the quandary of whether to lease or buy a vehicle sometimes arises. Could you gather enough material for a ten-minute information meeting? Yes. What problem within the topic would you attempt to solve? An obvious strategy is to make one pro-and-con list for buying, and one pro-and-con list for leasing. Several problems are inherent in this topic choice.

The goal of your problem-solving meeting is to have a group of participants collaborate to construct a list of alternatives which could solve the problem you've advanced. As a topic, buying or leasing a car only provides two alternatives. The instructional process used here requires at least five viable alternatives, so unless you can think of a way to stretch buy or lease into five different alternatives, this topic won't work. Buying or leasing is more of a personal choice issue, rather than one which requires group discussion and decision making. So your challenge is to find a topic in which there is a problem which a group can discuss and on which consensus is possible.

Another reason not to use this particular topic is the problem you create for participants. In your first meeting, you hold forth for ten minutes about the advantages and disadvantages of buying versus leasing. If you start a problem-solving meeting on this, you will essentially be asking participants to list back for you the information you gave out in your first meeting. Wait a minute! You're supposed to be the expert on this topic, not the audience! Don't make problem solving into a reverberation of an information meeting.

What you're aiming for in problem solving and decision making is to encourage discussion from several points of view. You're trying to elicit other people's ideas. "Here's what I know. Now, tell me what you think."

Let's take another example. If you've selected fire safety in the home as your topic, your three main points could include:

  1. the prevalence of home fires and damages to life and property

  2. precautions to observe in preventing home fires

  3. equipment/devices that homeowners should have and maintain

This is a lot of information for a ten-minute talk, but it can be done if you are succinct and well-organized. Where's the problem to be solved? You don't want to ask participants to list ways to prevent fires, because that's what you told them earlier. If in your first talk you mentioned smoke alarms as useful devices, in your problem-solving talk you could ask people to brainstorm ways to encourage the use of home smoke alarms. During the problem-solving meeting participants might respond with these ideas:

And the list goes on! This is the purpose of a problem-solving meeting - having people brainstorm possible solutions to the problem you've posed. In decision making, then, you can list the five alternatives arrived at previously and ask the audience to select the best alternative.

Notice in the fire safety example that smoke alarms came from the third main point of the first meeting. Frequently, choosing an item imbedded in a main point as a problem to solve is good and a natural thought progression for your audience. Remember, it always has to make sense to them. Thus, the idea here is to choose a topic with an imbedded problem in mind.

Your question now probably is: Can I just talk about a problem to begin with and then solve it? The answer is, "Yes, but ..." If the problem is a terribly complex one in which a number of issues need to be fleshed out thoroughly, you may need the ten-minute information meeting to make participants aware of everything they need to consider. Topics fitting this description: minimizing the impact of aspects of climate change; encouraging tighter fiscal and monetary integration of countries in the Euro zone; and improving women's rights in developing countries. These topics demand a higher level of information sifting and explanation of the issues involved. For the purpose of learning this meeting process, a less complicated topic might be a better choice.

Theory Versus Practice

Now a caveat about selecting too broad a topic! Let's say you've just gotten a directive from upper management to make your work group aware of sexual harassment. Is this topic too broad for a ten-minute meeting? Maybe. The best you could probably do here would be to cover this topic at the theoretical level in a ten-minute talk. Because this is a size Large topic to begin with, the most you could expect would be to define harassment, cite recent court cases, and state your company guidelines on harassment.

This is a problem that needs more specific applications in order to appeal to and become more understandable to most workforces. If you think about it, the function of middle- and first-level managers is to interpret upper-level management pronouncements to the rest of the workforce. So, if you just define harassment and say, "Don't do it," will that take care of the matter for workers? Probably not. The theory isn't translated into practice, and to change behavior, we all need practice - albeit theory-based.

Your problem-solving meeting would have to be at the theoretical level as well. You'd probably ask the group to brainstorm ideas for preventing harassment in the workplace. Ideas advanced might be:

This is not a bad list; in several respects, it is good. The point here is that these alternatives are more theory than practice. These are alternatives you could probably find in a textbook on the subject. What brainstorming at this level will produce are textbook answers to harassment problems. Does this solve problems? Yes, but if theory isn't interpreted in the light of practicality, what good will it do toward changing people's behavior?

Will people in the workforce change their behavior on Monday morning as a result of having this meeting on Friday afternoon? Looking at the alternatives generated in the last example, the onus for change lies primarily with management. Drawing up a statement on harassment, setting up a reporting hotline, or establishing a hands-off rule are management responsibilities. If you are having a meeting of managers, this would be fine. If you're having a meeting of workers, this doesn't give them the substance they need to change their behavior. One way of determining whether learning has occurred is to note whether people change their behavior. The focus in problem solving on this issue needs to be on changing behavior. Perhaps asking them to recount critical incidents they've seen, or posing a situation and asking for input, or conducting a role play would be better ideas for meetings of this nature. So, a better problem-solving discussion here would center on actualities in the workplace, not theoretical concerns.

The problem reflected here is lack of focus, which is a universal problem with meetings in general. If you want a theory-based outcome, plan for that. If you want a practical outcome, plan for that. Think beyond, "I need to have a meeting," to "What do I want to accomplish with this meeting?" This becomes your meeting objective: why have this meeting. What do you want people to do differently as a result of attending your meeting? More on this later, but for now, choose a topic which is not so broad that all participants can logically arrive at are hackneyed phrases and rule-of-thumb answers. Find something people can get into mentally and emotionally and discuss with fervor.

For example, a subset of the topic of sexual harassment is same-sex harassment - a smaller topic within the broader one. Give some recent examples, something from current news, and ask the audience to create a list of ways to counteract the specific incidences. The idea here is to get concrete, concise recommendations because that's where the workforce lives and functions. This is not a matter of intelligence, because savvy managers know that a lot of very clever people are in the workforce. They are clever in ways that managers aren't, and their skills are needed to produce the product or service of the organization. However, if management is prescribing an atmosphere it wishes to become pervasive or if it is establishing a work rule that all employees are to observe, management should supply guidance as to how work should be done and under what conditions it should be done, which in this example is harassment-free.

That's one of the reasons learning to focus meetings is important. Another, for the purpose of this instruction, is to provide practice in conducting meetings in which heartfelt ideas are discussed. When meetings center on real issues, they are meaningful and worthwhile.

A final bit of advice on meeting topics. Choose something you care about. It's hard to be enthusiastic about a topic when you're thinking, "Frankly, Scarlett ..." Half the battle in presenting well and conducting a well-organized meeting is enthusiasm for what you're doing. Choose something that makes your heart beat faster. If nothing comes to mind, read a newspaper, watch a news telecast, or get on the Internet to discover what other people find interesting - within reason, of course. Some issues reflected in recent news:

These are daily mainstream media articles only, so to develop your topic, you'd need to find more information from other sources - the Internet, personal experience, books, journals, magazines, interviews with experts, and so on. The worst mistake you can make is not having enough material. Too much material is far better. If you can't work all of it into your information meeting, you can freshen up your information in the problem-solving and decision-making meetings. If you do enough information gathering now, your later meetings will be richer and fuller because you know more and feel good about that!

TOPIC SUGGESTIONS

In summary, the format for instruction in this resource concerns managing three types of meetings: an information meeting, a problem-solving meeting in which you profile a problem and ask participants to brainstorm solutions, and a decision-making meeting in which you select one solution as the best. Topic choice needs to have a problem imbedded in it, usually something from one of your three major points. Choose a topic you're interested in or other people are interested in - an open-ended problem, one on which people can form opinions and do justice to brainstorming alternatives. Be as specific as possible and aim for a practical outcome as the end result of this meeting process - a behavior-changing choice.


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