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Chapter 4. Preparing for Interactive Meetings

Have you attended a meeting and walked away afterward thinking "THAT was a waste of time!" or, "Why didn't we get anything done?" In our time-oriented culture, wasting time (and money) in meetings is serious. This next section will teach you how to prepare for meetings and how to conduct them so that meeting objectives are accomplished, participants feel their views have been considered, and good decisions have been made.

Why Have Meetings?

A majority of groups and organizations couldn't function without meetings. Interacting face to face with other people is the best way to communicate when what YOU say depends on what OTHER PEOPLE say. You can react immediately to others' ideas; you can come up with new alternatives and problem solutions; you can discuss the repercussions of actions a group or organization is considering - all of which you can't do sitting alone at your desk. Of course, there's electronic mail at your desk, which eases the process of communication, but email lacks the visual and vocal elements of communication necessary for perception of meaning.

A group meeting together becomes more than the sum of its parts. Groups are comprised of people with knowledge and experiences that vary - they bring different resources to discussions. Especially in today's culture, problems extend beyond the boundaries of set disciplines or knowledge bases, so it is becoming increasingly important that people with varying backgrounds and viewpoints be brought together to discuss and decide.

An additional impetus for having meetings is that of implementing decisions. When people have the chance to present "their side" of an issue and when they can participate in making decisions on the issue, they are far more ready to implement a group decision, even though the decision may not be what they originally wanted. Sharing information, creating alternatives, and considering the potential aftermath of decisions are powerful ways to change people's minds and motivate them to change behavior. Learning to lead this process is essential for managers.

Part of the need for meetings concerns psychological needs of people. We need to feel we are part of an organization or a member of a team. We also need a sense of togetherness, belonging, and trust, we need help with responsibilities, and we need a renewed sense of commitment to our work groups and the organization. Meetings foster these needs. They are intensive ways of involving others in solving problems and making decisions. When people meet together for long periods of time or deal intensively for shorter periods, they often feel a sense of comradery with other group members. The time spent sharing experiences, stating personal views, and cooperating with others to find the best solution for all concerned creates a feeling of connectedness, a sense of community. Groups of people meeting together are potentially powerful. Leading efficient and effective meetings is important for managers!

What's Wrong with Meetings?

So what's wrong with meetings? A lot of it has to do with the way they're conducted - the meeting process itself. When groups of people get together to discuss things, it helps if there is a standard conduct, a method for insuring that all factions represented are heard. A standard for meetings is Robert's Rules of Order. Written by General Henry M. Robert in 1876, these rules enforce parliamentary procedure, which came from the English Parliament at that time. Henry Robert was ordered to San Francisco in 1867 as part of the Army Engineers; he found a tumultuous place where various constituents had quite different ideas about how things got done.

Using the United States House of Representatives model, he developed a standard for meeting conduct, not to achieve consensus necessarily, but to insure "deliberation," or "working through" the issues. Inherent in deliberation is the right of the minority to be heard along with the majority, so that decisions are made by a majority of meeting constituents ONLY after considering the views of all persons potentially affected by them. The parliamentary model requires a chairperson who controls the discussion and a secretary who takes minutes, a record of what is discussed and decided. It also requires of participants an extensive knowledge of Robert's Rules.

That's part of what's wrong with meetings. In formal meetings today when Robert's Rules are used (and they still are), the chairperson must be adroit in Robertese, and participants need to be fairly skilled in the process. The Rules bring an accepted order to meetings, but some people view this as an encumbrance to expression. Another part of what's wrong is that this meeting process isn't suited to solving problems informally by collaborating, working together on complex issues that are interdependent. However, other protocols do not have universal acceptance.

A lack of standards for meetings makes conflict difficult to resolve, creates dilemmas when decisions are made without input from those affected by decisions, and makes leading a productive meeting difficult.

The meeting process you are about to learn shows the way to conduct efficient and effective meetings. You will learn how to prepare for and conduct meetings so that problem solving is done with spontaneity and decision making is direct and objective. Having learned these skills, you will be viewed as a leader with merit while being perceived as empathetic and humble. Your secret - knowing that process determines outcome. By controlling the meeting process, you CAN determine what will happen. Effective meetings produce sound decisions, and organizations run on decisions at all levels.

Types of Meetings

Meetings in organizations usually have one of these purposes: information giving, information exchange, problem solving, and decision making.

Information-giving meetings are favored when:

Information-exchange meetings are called for when:

Again, memos work here, but phone calls are better, and, increasingly, electronic mail allows information exchange more quickly.

Problem-solving meetings allow several people to combine knowledge and skills at once. These are useful when:

There aren't many good alternatives to face-to-face communication, but conference calls, interactive videos, and Web chat rooms are possible.

Decision-making meetings are needed:

It may be possible to use telephone surveys or mailed response sheets for these, but the feeling of closure on an issue is more complete if done by face-to-face agreement.

THE IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION FOR MANAGERS IS: DO WE NEED TO HAVE A MEETING? A rule of thumb to use in determining whether to have a meeting is to ask if you are sure of the outcome. If you already know the answer, you could telephone, write, or not have a meeting. If you aren't sure how you OR the issue will be received AND this is important to you or your company, better to go in person and have a meeting.

Meeting Approaches

Two general approaches to meetings are leader-controlled and group-centered. Leader-controlled approaches are used at information-giving meetings and large group meetings when the flow of open information is difficult. The leader opens the meeting, either makes announcements or calls on others to do so, and calls for questions and comments. In other words, the leader is the show. This approach is easy on the leader since there are few surprises, and large amounts of information can be covered in short periods of time. The disadvantages of this approach are that the free flow of information is stymied somewhat by having to go through the leader to get "air time," so spontaneity is affected. Another disadvantage is that sensitive or emotional issues usually don't emerge, and all the participants don't have a chance to be heard.

In group-centered approaches, the leader runs the show, but is not a dominant figure. Participants interact more freely and address questions to each other, while the leader keeps the meeting moving on, redirecting the focus of comments that stray from the meeting purpose, ensuring that all persons participate, and summarizing the apparent position of the group from time to time. This approach is more difficult for the leader, especially dealing with the increased interaction and the emotions sometimes generated. Advantages of this type of meeting are that people understand others' viewpoints better, more information generally leads to a better decision, and when people express themselves, they feel better. Disadvantages include the increased amount of time needed and the fact that having interpersonal discussions in large groups is difficult when meaningful exchange is important.

Which approach you use in meetings depends on you and your meeting objective - why you're holding the meeting.

Now, a word about you. Meetings should be quite important to you personally. No one sees you at your desk or in your office working on reports or telephoning or working at your computer. They see the results of these activities, which are necessary, but conducting meetings benefits your image in the company in different ways. Others see you in action in meetings and form opinions about your competence based on what they see and hear. If you can cut through chaos to find the issues that matter, get groups to deliberate these issues and lead decision making on these issues, you can become known as a competent leader in your organization. Preparing for and conducting meetings is essential to being a good leader.

When to Have Meetings

By now, we know some reasons not to have group meetings:

Let's add to these by including:

Calling a meeting is GOOD when:

Key to your preparation for a meeting is the meeting objective. What is your purpose in having a meeting? What is the main goal of getting people together for your meeting? If your objective addresses one of the previously mentioned reasons for having a meeting, then you can start preparing in depth. A meeting objective should be brief, concise, and written as a clear goal, rather than a vague statement. Use action verbs with "to," such as to inform, to create, to decide.

Planning Interactive Meetings

A meeting leader may be a manager, a supervisor, an employee, or a number of other people; however, the responsibilities for planning meetings are the same. These are: preparing the agenda, considering logistics, selecting attendees, and calculating meeting costs. It may help simply to take a sheet of paper and write down what the meeting will be like: What kind of meeting you want, who should be invited, when it should be scheduled, where it will take place, what issues will surface, what decisions need to be made, what information you need to lead the meeting, what written materials will be needed, what audiovisual aids will work best - everything you can think of at this point.

CREATING AN AGENDA FOR EVERY MEETING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP IN ENSURING SUCCESSFUL MEETINGS. Plus it's a natural offshoot of the page of notes you just wrote. Why use an agenda? It draws a big picture of the meeting and serves to focus thoughts and discussion on the purpose of your meeting. It also details the assignments for meeting participants and lets them know how to prepare for the meeting, since leaders circulate the agenda at least two days ahead of the actual meeting. At a glance, participants will know the purpose of the meeting, the time, location, what they should bring or do for the meeting, who will be there, and how the meeting will be conducted. You've already written the meeting objective as specifically as you can. The next step is to set up the when, where, what, and who of the meeting.

When

The choice of meeting time depends on the purpose of your meeting, the availability of key people and facilities, and how long you think the meeting will take. If you've planned a two-hour meeting, you wouldn't start it at 11:00, since lunchtime would interfere. Speaking of lunchtime, consider whether you want to combine a meeting with a meal. There are pros and cons on both sides of this issue. Having meals and meetings combined emphasizes sociability and networking, but may distract people from the purpose of the meeting, especially evening meals.

Sharing food is a way of building bonds between people, though. You might consider having special treats at group meetings - doughnuts or bagels in the morning, cookies or crackers and cheese in the afternoon. Coffee, tea, juice, and sodas are also welcome. Breakfast meetings work for some, since you catch people before they go to their jobs, and meetings tend to be short and productive.

It's best to avoid scheduling meetings on holidays, long weekends, or the beginning or end of the week. Morning meetings summon longer attention spans for some; as the day progresses and tasks mount up to distract people, their patience and willingness to contribute wears thin. Sales meetings might be held early in the morning to hand out assignments and point out daily or weekly goals. If you do schedule morning meetings, give employees a chance to get settled before gathering up for your meeting.

Line workers and staff connected with them usually have meetings before or after their shift hours. Employees who have contacts with customers will want to be free when customers are likely to call or visit. If no compensation is provided for job-related meetings, employees will probably resent returning in the evenings or on days off for meetings.

Where

Sometimes you have no choice; you have meetings in whatever size room will accommodate the number of participants you have. If people are seated for a long period of time, you should arrange for comfortable chairs. You should eliminate distractions such as phone calls, foot traffic, and interruptions in whatever form they arrive. A conference table is desirable for group discussions. Try for as much eye contact as possible between participants, whatever seating arrangements you have. Set up a circle or a horseshoe arrangement for maximum interaction. Moveable chairs also work for small break-out groups as well. Other seating arrangements are:

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What

A major objective in meeting preparation is to gather as much information as you can and consider the implications of the information. Especially if the subject of your meeting is controversial as well as important, you should contact participants before the actual meeting. Anticipate what questions you think you'll get and find answers to those questions. The contacts you make will help you anticipate areas of agreement and disagreement during your actual meeting. As you talk with people, solicit their personal views on your topic. If they have "hidden agendas," you can be prepared to counteract their tactics. If enough data exists prior to the meeting, create handouts and send them to participants with a request to read them before the meeting. As we've already said, send out your agenda in advance to clarify the meeting purpose. Again, your agenda needs an objective, a notice of the time/date/location of the meeting, a list of attendees, and discussion items.

Who

The right number of people and the right people at your meeting are crucial elements in the success of meetings. More people attending means increased meeting costs, longer discussion times, and less opportunity for participation. If large groups are inevitable, try break-out groups to maximize participation. Limit your agenda items for large groups.

A good rule of thumb in selecting attendees is including those who can be directly helpful in carrying out the objective of the meeting. If you are making major decisions, include someone directly affected by the changes you are considering. Consider who has the power to make decisions and who will implement them. Select attendees who support your objective, who oppose it, and the undecided. Finally, consider people it is politically expedient to invite, those who might cause trouble if you didn't invite them, as well as those you're obliged to invite for any number of reasons. If you can, avoid inviting known meeting disrupters; no one needs long-winded people who disagree with everyone on all the issues. Consider also that some people will consider it a blessing not to be asked to attend. If they are not directly affected by the objective of the meeting, offer to send them a copy of the minutes as a courtesy.

Costs

We've looked at preparing an agenda, considering logistics, and selecting attendees. A final consideration is figuring out the costs of the meeting. If more people figured the actual costs of meeting, fewer of them might be held. To figure time costs, write down the names of all attendees at your meeting and figure their time value. This could be hourly pay or a percentage of their total salary, divided by the number of days each year that they are required to work. Multiply the time value per hour by the length of your meeting to get the cost for each attendee. Then figure preparation time and costs, any handouts or visuals made, room costs, refreshments, transportation, and guest speaker costs. Add all this to find the total meeting cost.

If you succeed in establishing a more efficient method of conducting meetings, you will have saved time and money!

Return on investment of time and money in a meeting depends on the value of the results produced. Well-planned, well-executed meetings should produce better results in shorter time frames and be more cost effective as a result. Figuring the monetary value of results may prove difficult unless you can directly connect a result with a figure from the "bottom line," such as:

Track savings in the beginning of your stint as a meeting leader and continue to monitor your efficiency and that of your work group. Then DOCUMENT SAVINGS OF TIME AND MONEY - IT'S YOUR TICKET TO:

PAY, PRESTIGE, AND PROMOTION!


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