Disrupting the Cycle of Inefficient Meetings

Certainly at least once a week, you can find yourself trapped in a poorly run meeting, wasting both time and resources. Such meetings seem to be accepted as a fact of business life. However, an unfocused meeting can be sharpened right when it is in progress. More importantly, within a business group, the cycle of inefficient meetings can be broken. It takes a planning model and some preparation.

How do these meetings continue to happen? The inefficient meetings are not due to lack of information about procedures. By this time, most organizations have provided books, web sites, instruction, or high-priced consultants to address this inefficiency. Still the meetings go on, frustrating many. One problem is that the training lacks immediacy– that is the behaviors are not evaluated and corrected at the time they occur. Further, an individual person acting alone to change things is generally not well tolerated by the peers. However, a small group can make a big difference in the quality of the meetings. One approach is described below:

Background–Planning Model based on Urban Renewal Experience

In an urban renewal method used extensively in the 1950s, the government razed tracts of inner city neighborhoods with the intent of reconstructing them. This approach failed for several different reasons– priorities changed, funding was not approved, or housing concepts were misunderstood and the residential towers constructed proved unworkable.

One current approach to urban renewal is to identify a still vibrant core within a deteriorated neighborhood and take selected actions (i.e. incentives to attract business mortgage options to attract resident, increased community services) to encourage growth outward from that center. At some tipping point, the growth becomes self-sustaining.

The key points for applying this experience to meetings are the vibrant core, grass roots empowerment, and incremental action.

Application to Business Meetings

Identify a Vibrant Core

A small group, that is both frustrated by the inefficiency and recognizes the benefits of focused meetings, has to be identified. As a starting point, this group may be just a few people in a business unit who tend to attend the same meetings. Often people join in a self-selection process. It is important that the several members of a group routinely attend the selected meetings. The informal grass roots group can empower themselves to facilitate change on their own.

Incremental Intervention

The group members identify a small number of very defined points that are considered to be crucial to have an efficient meeting. If the points are not present, or if the meeting veers from the track, straightforward questions can disrupt the inefficiency. These simple questions demand answers, not further discussion.

As an example, four points for an efficient meeting are discussed below:

1. Goals and Objectives

Very often, the opening comment is that the meeting group is getting together to talk about an issue. And that is all that happens. There are a few cases when meetings are just to talk. But seriously, there should be a cogent reason for the meeting that should result in at least a direction. If no one can articulate it, the meeting is on the wrong track.
Ask: What is the goal of this meeting? What will a successful meeting accomplish?

2. Agenda

A meeting without a road map is not likely to stay in the intended direction. Reference to the agenda during the meeting allows the group to recognize diversions and get back on course. The key word here is thoughtful. The agenda frames the discussion. When agendas are shown for review, people generally accept the basic premises and often make comments around the edges. It is one of the real ironies when the meeting leader reports that he was too busy to make an agenda. There appears to be no time for individual preparation, but the time of the group is used inefficiently.
Ask: Where is the thoughtful agenda?

3. Decisions

Sooner or later, the meeting must result in decisions or directions for action. It is important that the group has a common understanding of how these decisions will be made. There are significantly different ways: Autocratic (one person decides), Consultative (one person decides with input from others), democratic (each person has a vote) or consensus (all members support). The method of decision making affects the presentation and discussion of the information. If people are unclear as to who is responsible for the decision, it is likely that a clear decision will not be made.
Ask: How will decisions be made?

4. Accountability

Follow-up of the agreed upon action is necessary to prevent more things from going into a black hole. If the meeting adjourns without a clear idea of the follow-up actions, it is not likely that the actions will get done.
Ask: Who is accountable for the actions decided of the meeting? What are the dates?


Immediacy and Repetition

Since the group can gently affect the meeting as it takes place, and the benefits can be observed, there is a high degree of immediacy to reinforce the behavior. However, it takes repetition to change habits so that the questions may be required at different meetings in order to begin to break the cycle.

Two Cautions:
(i) Intervention style is a skill.It is important to intervene in a style that is naturally perceived as helpful. People are more receptive when they sense that a primary motivation is to improve both the situation and develop their own skills.

(ii) Some meetings are not appropriate for intervention.

Key factors are the relationships between people. The intent is to improve the situation, not to antagonize, embarrass, bruise egos, or harm yourself.

In summary, those who attend inefficient meetings can empower themselves to improve the situation without waiting for outside directives. If a small group can do this successfully, others will follow.


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