Since long before PDAs and PowerPoint presentations became conference room staples, meetings have had a reputation for dragging on, wasting time, and allowing attendees to get away with bad behavior.
It doesn't have to be that way. It is possible to turn unproductive meetings into focused, uplifting work sessions. First, diagnose the problem, using the scenarios below. Then apply one of these tried-and-true remedies to make the most of your meetings.
Problem: “Meetings drag on longer than they should.”
- Set a time limit for each agenda item. It clues in others to the relative importance of each item and it ensures that the meeting doesn't aim to cover too much ground. If an item threatens to mushroom unexpectedly, either jettison other items on the agenda or form a task force to tackle the issue outside the meeting.
- Use the “stand-up,” a fast huddle where participants run through a streamlined agenda, standing up all the while. When people are on their feet, they're more likely to keep a laser-like focus on the agenda. The Ritz uses this meeting format for their 9:05 a.m. daily “Lineup,” a 10-minute morning meeting held at each Ritz hotel.
Problem: “People start talking off-topic, and before you know it we're meeting about something that isn't even on the agenda.”
- Designate a “parking lot” — a real or a figurative whiteboard — where all off-topic ideas can reside. Write down unrelated suggestions as they pop up, telling participants that the group can circle back to those topics at an appropriate time.
- Lay ground rules. Announce at the beginning of the meeting that because you value everyone's time, you'll jump in when comments are off-point or long-winded. Nudge speakers back on course with these handy phrases: “I'd like to go back and see how that relates to our original agenda item,” or “Let's stop for a moment and review our main points.”
Problem: “One ‘difficult' person is ruining our meetings with his bad behavior.”
- Set the tone for the meeting. Say something at the outset like: “I don't expect us all to agree with everything said, but I want to hear all viewpoints. So say what's on your mind and don't criticize other ideas until we can fairly evaluate all input.”
- Shine a spotlight on bad behavior. Say, “John. (Pause.) Is this really going to solve our problem?” At the same time, attempt to change the climate by gently prompting other participants to speak up. If the behavior persists, talk privately with the culprit at the break to explain how his or her behavior is affecting the group.
- Give the person a job, such as being timekeeper. Giving a disruptive person a role in the meeting may stifle his or her attention-seeking behavior.
With a few smart strategies, you can make meetings more meaningful — and stifle the yawns for good.
Alice Bumgarner is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.
Cure for the Latecomer Blues A lax policy toward starting time is one of the main causes of late-running meetings. Make sure people show up on time for meetings by using these three tactics:
1. Schedule the meeting for an offbeat time. Elizabeth Wilcox, a project manager for Washington, D.C., real estate consulting company JM Zell, says that shifting a regular conference call from 9:30 a.m. to 9:40 a.m. worked wonders.
“The 10-minute difference seems small,” she says, “but it made a strong impact. Everyone was on the call early —for a change.”
2. Close the door when the meeting begins. If the meeting was set to begin at 8 a.m., start at 8 a.m. regardless of who is missing, even if it's the big boss. It sends a clear signal: This group won't wait for latecomers.
3. Make them pay. Fine them a dollar for every minute they're late. If that doesn't work, raise it to three dollars. Use the money for charity.