Whether your company holds one meeting a week or dozens of meetings a day it is essential that this time is used efficiently and effectively. Most meetings are less effective than they could be not because they are poorly managed, but because meeting managers spend all of their time focusing on the one or two hours when people will be gathered around the conference table or video screen. Smart meeting managers know that it is the actions you take during the three days immediately before the meeting which are much more important than the meeting itself.
When Your Meeting Starts
The key to making your meeting successful begins long before the scheduled start-time of your meeting. Just as any athlete knows the importance of stretching before exercising, top-level meeting managers know that how you spend your time the week prior to a meeting is as important as or more important than the meeting time itself.
Common signs that a manager has spent too much time focusing on the meeting itself and not enough time focusing on the activity leading up to the meeting include people coming to your meetings unprepared, a few people suggesting many of the ideas, and a consistent pattern of rushing through the items at the bottom of your agenda.
Roger Burns, a 30-year veteran of high-level meetings describes it like this, “Often times the first 20 or 30 minutes of our meetings would be spent with people flipping through the documents I had sent them over a week ago. They had not prepared and had no idea what questions I was going to ask in the next few minutes.”
If you are like many, these symptoms show up more often than not. So what is a meeting manager to do? How can you avoid these common pitfalls? The answer is simple, but it begins a full week before the meeting is scheduled to start.
The Three P’s of Successful Meetings: Preparation, Participation, Prioritization
Although a successful meeting requires a skilled facilitator, that is only part of the puzzle. Equally important is the activity that has occurred prior to the meeting.
The First P: Preparation
Effective use of your meeting time relies on all parties being prepared to participate. This means that each person in attendance has already read the meeting materials prior to the meeting taking place. In addition to this, the meeting participants should be given the questions that are going to be discussed prior to the meeting.
Historically, most meetings begin with the chairperson asking a question to those in attendance. As an example if you were holding a strategic planning meeting, a good question might be, “What do you think are the strengths of our organization?” At this point the discussion moves around the table with each person having two minutes to process the questions, come up with a smart-sounding solution, and express the solution coherently to the group.
The problem with this method is that most good ideas do not come in those two minutes. Good ideas come as you are driving to work, as you are falling asleep, as you are in the shower – the very times you are probably not with your co-workers in a meeting. (Unless you are routinely holding your meetings in the company locker room!) Giving the questions you are going to ask to each meeting participant prior to the meeting is essential to getting the best ideas out of your participants. It also gives them a reason to read the materials you have distributed prior to the meeting.
The best time to distribute the materials and questions is three to seven days prior to your meeting. This gives participants a chance to think about the issues and questions, but not long enough to forget their good ideas and why they liked them. The payback here is fast and obvious. You will get more accomplished in less time – saving your organization money and allowing you to get your ideas implemented faster.
The Second P: Participation
Getting the best ideas from your best people is essential for your meeting to be successful. The other half of this equation is to get a broad base of participation so there is ownership in the solution rather than resentment.
If these two elements are so important to successful meetings, why is it so rare that they happen simultaneously? The first reason it rarely happens is because your best idea people are often your busiest people. More times than not these high-value people who are like popcorn machines full of ideas are already scheduled for other meetings when you choose your meeting times. Although it is sometimes possible to reschedule your meeting to meet their availability, it is impossible to adjust every time and for every need.
The second reason you rarely get your best idea people to participate and have a wide base of ownership at the same time has to do with the dynamic within meetings. Each person within your organization is wired differently and for every person who is comfortable expressing and advocating for ideas in a meeting there are others who do not have this gift. For those who are good at verbal maneuvering, gaining support at a meeting is like a sport. For those who feel less comfortable in this environment advocating a position can feel like torture. Clearly a venue is needed to allow everyone a chance to participate in the solution in a way that is non-threatening, democratic and builds ownership directly into the process.
Do not underestimate the value of this increased participation. Ideas, initiatives and even directives that are viewed as having a broad base of support are implemented faster and with a higher level of quality. In addition to this, you do get better ideas when more people participate – especially when the people participating are those closest to the action not those incubated in their executive offices. All of this helps you innovated faster than the competition, get to market quicker with your ideas, and win the battle of consistent quality.
The Third P: Prioritization
In a perfect world we would have unlimited time in each day to get everything done. Unfortunately we live on the clock each and every day. Too often our meetings are crammed full of agenda items placed there in the order they showed up on our desk or the order we jotted them down on a yellow sticky note while on the phone, with no level of importance or urgency.
The best meeting managers understand that all items on an agenda do not deserve equal weight, and they prioritize the issues starting with the most urgent. This allows your best minutes to be dedicated to your most important items.
Unfortunately the priorities of the leader are not always the priorities of the team. There are many times when the rank and file have a burning issue that has completely slipped past the management. Effective meeting leaders have a system in place to identify and address just such issues.
The benefit of having such a system in place is increased productivity in your most vital areas. By focusing everyone’s attention on the issues which are most important to your success you will quickly see a decrease in non-value added activity and increased profitability for your efforts.
A New Set of Tools
Now that we have switched our focus from the one hour meeting around to the full week leading up to a meeting – a whole new set of tools needs to be added to your toolbox.
There are a multitude of tools already present and accounted for to help you with the actual meeting: from flip charts to electronic white boards, from video-conferencing to the latest collaboration software allowing a group of people edit a document from locations around the world, companies have kept up-to-date with a variety of e-meeting solutions.
One tool new to this market sector is ehuddle. Ehuddle is an internet-based tool used by companies pre-meeting and post-meeting to increase the effectiveness of meetings. Initiated by a simple email to meeting participants, ehuddle let’s everyone who is invited to the meeting see the questions that are going to be asked, brainstorm possible answers, and evaluate a list of possible solutions. All of this activity happens in the days leading up to the meeting ensuring that participants are prepared for the meeting – having already thought about the important issues and evaluated each other’s possible solutions.
Ehuddle utilizes a proprietary online format that is anonymous and democratic. This not only allows members of your committee who could not make the meeting to give input, it also creates an environment where no one is afraid to suggest ideas. Ownership is built into the process because everyone has had a hand in evaluating each solution.
Smart meeting managers are even using tools like ehuddle to set a portion of the agenda. By letting rank and file members of any group to brainstorm and rank issues that are important to them, the agenda automatically reflects the needs of the organization.
The return on investment for tools like ehuddle is quickly realized. Managers recognize the money lost in non-optimized meetings, low levels of participation, and distracted activity. Couple this with the increased productivity, quicker issue identification and resolution, and faster time-to-market the tool brings and you will quickly see that this is money well spent.
Utilizing this full set of tools prior to a meeting allows the leader to walk into the conference room or video-conference confident that the groundwork has been laid for a successful meeting.