|CATHERINE L. CARLOZZI is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer based in New Jersey. She formerly served as associate national director of publications at Laventhol & Horwath.|
Have you ever attended a meeting that lasted longer than it needed to? Lacked focus or structure? Left you wondering why you, in particular, were invited? Or seemed totally unnecessary and produced no result? If your answer to any of these questions is no, you must live alone on a desert island or in a mountaintop cave. Most businesspeople would readily agree that meetings are the bane of their existence, leading the list of top time wasters.
The good news is that technological advances, such as e-mail, video conferences and online conferencing, are saving time by reducing the number of face-to-face confabs it takes to make decisions, conclude transactions and participate in projects. E-mail, for example, provides the ability to put detailed information, ranging from spreadsheets to three-dimensional airplane parts, in front of widely scattered individuals quickly and simultaneously, hold multiparty conversations and reach consensus promptly, with minimal effort and disruption to the daily work routine.
Microsoft is a well-documented example of a company that uses e-mail to reduce the number of meetings in all areas, including mergers and acquisitions, employee performance reviews and crisis response. It is working on technology that will enable all 26,000 of its employees worldwide to attend virtual employee meetings.
Boeing used its digital infrastructure to design the 777 aircraft from start to finish, a five-year undertaking that involved up to 30,000 people worldwide. Information technology enabled geographically dispersed team members to view and discuss three-dimensional elements of the design simultaneously and make decisions quickly without meeting in person or even shipping documents.
Regardless of how we put our heads together, literally or virtually, it makes sense to ensure that the time devoted to this activity is well spent. Efficient, effective meetings are rooted in discipline and effort on the part of meeting initiators, managers and participants alike. Most businesspeople play all three of these roles over the course of a year, and sometimes within a day.
CALLING A MEETING
Asking others to participate in a meeting even the most casual, impromptu session carries with it an obligation to respect and make good use of the time they will be investing. That means using some of your own time to plan and prepare.
Before you pick up the phone, walk down the hall, draft a memo or fire off e-mail to initiate any gathering, you need to answer the following questions:
- What are the meeting's purpose and objectives? Formulate a clear statement of what you intend to accomplish.
- Whose participation is essential to achieving those objectives? Each attendee should be there for a clearly defined purpose.
- What format will be most efficient and effective for your objectives and the participants? Bringing essential parties together may call for some creativity in terms of when, where and how you meet. Is visual contact necessary? If so, will videoconferencing suffice? Is teleconferencing an option for some, or all, participants? Will meeting off-site or outside normal business hours reduce interruptions or ensure the attendance of key players?
- How long will it take to come to agreement or make decisions? Keep your meeting as short as realistically possible, but allow enough time to get the job done.
Although the scope and complexity of the arrangements will vary with the nature of your meeting, the following basic guidelines apply in most situations.
- Give participants as much notice as possible.
- Provide everyone with complete information regarding date, time (both starting time and expected duration), location (including travel information, if appropriate) and other arrangements (such as who will initiate a conference call). Include the names of all participants on the meeting notice, so everyone will know who the other players are. If participants do not know each other, give titles and affiliations.
- Draft an agenda, no matter how brief. Participants need a road map to keep them on course to accomplish the stated objectives in the time allotted. In general, an agenda should state your purpose or objectives and list, in sequence, all topics to be covered. If time is limited and the agenda is long, list topics in priority order. Group the related topics together to facilitate discussion flow and minimize the need to backtrack. The meeting outline should end with a next steps follow-up and, if applicable, particulars about the next meeting.
- Make sure participants are prepared. Provide everyone with the agenda and all relevant background material as far in advance as possible. Assign and discuss any specific tasks or roles (these may include a moderator, presenters, a recorder, preferably someone who will not take part in the discussion, and equipment operators) necessary to ensure the meeting's success. Be clear about what you expect of attendees in terms of preparation. Reconfirm that everyone has received notification of the meeting, and understands the importance of being prepared and on time.
- Make specific arrangements (such as room reservations and setup, equipment, food service, operator assistance for a conference call) well in advance. Confirm the arrangements at least once before the meeting and again, in person, on the day before the meeting.
- As soon as possible after the meeting, send a written recap or minutes to all attendees and others who will be affected by what took place at the meeting. It should include a summary of the discussion; all decisions made or agreements reached; actions to be taken, along with responsibilities and deadlines; and, if appropriate, the date, time and place of the next meeting.
IF YOURE ASKED TO LEAD
Like a ship, a successful meeting can have only one captain. This leader, or moderator, is not necessarily the meeting initiator or planner and definitely should not be the meeting recorder. The moderator serves as a guide who paces and focuses the meeting, using the agenda to lead participants toward the stated goal. This role requires tact, diplomacy, good listening skills and the ability to think on your feet.
Following are some general guidelines for effective meeting leadership:
- For an in-person meeting or video conference, place yourself where you will be visible to all participants and be able to refer to visual aids. Touch base with all presenters and equipment operators to discuss last-minute adjustments to the agenda, synchronize timing, etc. Unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, distribute handouts before the meeting begins to avoid wasting time and distracting participants. For a tele- or Internet conference, be the first person on the line or online.
- Greet participants as they arrive and make any necessary introductions.
- Start the meeting as promptly as possible. If a key player is late, assign someone to track him or her down. Keep your official greeting short, but use it to put people in the proper mood. Discourage socializing once the meeting has started.
- Provide a brief overview of the purpose and objectives, format and ground rules for the meeting as well as any necessary background or context. This will help establish your leadership, set the tone and put everyone on the same page. Encourage people to ask questions as they arise. Nagging, unanswered questions are a distraction that may inhibit full attention and participation.
- Acknowledge latecomers as they arrive. The disruption caused by a late entrance is unavoidable, so integrate the individual with a quick introduction if he or she isn't known to the group, provide a quick recap if necessary and move on.
- Deflect negative behavior as quickly and tactfully as possible. If you know someone is a chronic interrupter, for example, get his or her input first to forestall interruptions.
- Cue presenters with a brief introduction that includes how long the presentation will last.
- Stimulate discussion and foster an open exchange of ideas by entertaining all ideas impartially (weak ideas can elicit stronger ideas), discouraging domination and criticism, drawing out those who are reluctant to voice ideas or opinions and encouraging questions as they arise. Subordinate your own ideas and opinions to avoid intimidating, unduly influencing or stealing the thunder from other participants.
- Intervene in presentations or discussions as necessary, for example, by asking a question, to prevent them from becoming bogged down or sidetracked.
- Provide continuity: As each item on the agenda is dealt with, summarize the discussion before moving on to the next point to be discussed.
- End the meeting by summarizing key points, conclusions and decisions. Get consensus on next steps, including action, deadlines and responsibilities, and field any final questions. Close on a positive note, thanking all participants for their time and effort.
THE ROLE OF PARTICIPANTS
Without the courtesy and cooperation of attendees, not even the best planned and moderated meeting can succeed. Once you agree to participate in a meeting, you take on certain obligations to the meeting initiator and your fellow attendees.
- Arrive on time. In the age of information technology, there is no excuse for failing to notify the meeting initiator or moderator that you will be delayed or have to cancel at the last minute.
- Come fully prepared. This means you've reviewed all background material, noted your questions, comments and thoughts, prepared for an assigned role and have all necessary materials at hand.
- Avoid idle conversation or socializing that delays the start of the meeting.
- Observe the meeting's ground rules.
- Listen carefully and avoid distracting or disruptive behavior, such as interrupting, conversing on the side, displaying negative body language and facial expressions or taking calls on your cellular telephone.
- Provide your input clearly and concisely; if you are making a presentation, stay within the time allotted to you.
- Be constructive, not destructive. If you have to challenge an idea, be prepared to offer an alternative.
Unless we all develop mental telepathy, meetings in some form are likely to remain a necessary part of business life. An up-front investment in thoughtful planning and preparation, and following these commonsense guidelines, will pay off in less wasted time for everyone involved.
A growing number of vendors offer videoconferencing services, systems and software that make it possible for widely dispersed colleagues to meet and collaborate in real-time, sharing information in a variety of forms. Some even offer free software trials, as well as purchase and downloading, through their Web sites. Following is a sampling of what is currently available.
AT&T video and videoconferencing services
MCIWorldCom videoconferencing and Net conferencing services
TeleMedia Applications videoconferencing systems and services
VSI Enterprises Omega videoconferencing systems
White Pine CU-SeeMe