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LEGAL: Make the most of meetings by planning and following up

December 31, 2007

Meetings can motivate and inspire. Productive meetings draw the best ideas out of people. Bad meetings, however, suck the life out of attendees.

While endless meetings are legendary in big companies, entrepreneurial businesses face simi lar challenges. Several times daily, somebody has the great idea to have a meeting.

If you look at my calendar any Sunday night, you'll see only a handful of meetings scheduled for the next week. But look back at the week on Friday night, and you'll see one meeting after another. Where did all those meetings come from? Were they all necessary? Even more important, were they all productive?

By contrast, we use e-mail, voice mail and phone calls far too often. While convenient, they often are a poor substitute for productive face-to-face meetings. You can't replace the interaction, body language and other visual cues lost in these forms of communication.

What's the perfect balance between endless unproductive meetings and communications that miss these important visual and interpersonal cues?

The key is to choose the best form of communication for what you are trying to accomplish. Frequently, we pick the form that fits our style or is most convenient. We seldom ask whether it is the most productive for what we are trying to achieve. Often we are too busy to even think about it or take time to meet. With others, however, the answer is always, "Let's meet!"

How do you ensure that a meeting will be productive?

Meetings without agendas leave productivity to chance. They signal that nobody took the time to prepare materials and think through the goals. Even if you have done this, have you communicated it to others so they come prepared?

Be realistic about the time you allocate for each agenda item. Each topic will typically take longer than you expect, so budget plenty of time. When the meeting runs over, you often leave important items undone.

Overrunning the meeting time also frustrates participants. I watch the rising frustration in their body language as the meeting runs further and further past the stated ending time. This is disrespectful of other people's time and demonstrates an inability to organize and plan.

People need to understand their role in a meeting. Sending an agenda well in advance will clue them into this. Good agendas communicate the meeting goals and give people "homework" assignments. Advance notice of points to ponder will result in more thoughtful contributions and avoid "off-the-cuff" opinions. This also will get participants engaged and promote buy-in.

Focusing the discussion is important to a productive meeting. Many times meeting leaders allow participants to meander off-topic. Or they will allow one person who enjoys talking to dominate the discussion. This is more apt to happen when people don't understand the goals of the meeting.

While off-topic ideas may be worth discussing, the meeting will be much more effective if those items are tabled for future consideration. This will help keep the meeting on track and improve the likelihood of achieving the goals.

Many times I watch people assemble the "best minds" in a room. The stated purpose is to bring these great minds to bear on the issues. Yet when we get there, the meeting is nothing but a "dog and pony" show of what has been accomplished since the last meeting. No input is solicited. Nobody throws out big issues for debate. The time of these "best minds" is essentially wasted. Why assemble a brain trust and not use it to its full benefit?

A common complaint is that meetings last too long. Studies show productivity diminishes after an hour. A meeting over 90 minutes is an eternity and should be avoided.

Don't be afraid to call on participants who are quiet. Solicit their input. Typically, introverted people sit back and let the extroverts talk. The introverts' ideas may be the most valuable because they have been quietly pondering and thinking. A good leader will get them involved in the discussion. Once involved, they will get in the rhythm of the meeting and open up.

Follow the meeting by sending people a summary. Include action and follow up items and next steps. Leave no room for people to forget or misunderstand what they are to do next.

Meetings are a very expensive way to do business. To get the most for your money, make sure your meetings are productive.



Millard is chairman of the business department for the Barnes & Thornburg LLP law firm. He can be reached at 231-7803.
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