Clues to the fine art of office meetings that work effectively

How many meetings did you attend last week? Four? Fifteen? And of those meetings, which ones stand out as being productive? If you're like many people, you may have a hard time remembering the last good meeting you sat through.

The emphasis on teams has created a new meeting mentality in most organizations. Cross-functional task-forces, production team meetings, project teams and weekly staff meetings can take up a good part of a week, leaving little time to actually get the work done that was assigned in the meeting!

Ineffective meetings aren't new, but the environment is; with companies expecting employees to do more with less head-count, there is no time to waste. Meeting participants are growing increasingly resentful as work piles up on their desks.

If you want your meetings to run better, I have a suggestion for you. Before your next meeting, ask each attendee how productive the meetings have been on a scale of 1 to 10. If the group is dissatisfied, consider proposing this agenda item to the leader: "A group discussion about how we can improve our meetings." If the leader is smart, he or she will be happy to make it a top priority item at the next meeting.

Your group may want to try something a little different. Instead of giving the leader sole responsibility for running effective meetings, why not have everyone in the group share the tasks? The best meetings I've been in are those where everyone takes responsibility for getting the most out of the meeting.

Often, a group doesn't know how to run a meeting very well, but they know when it's not working. To teach everyone the components of good meeting facilitation, you could assign different tasks at the beginning of the meeting. These tasks could be rotated among the group on a weekly or monthly basis, so everyone gets an idea of how to use the techniques.

For instance, you may want to appoint the following roles. They are a little wacky but they make the meeting more fun and productive. They also teach meeting skills quickly.

·        The "Agenda Owner." This person takes responsibility for collecting agenda items in advance of the meeting, gets the agenda out to everyone prior to the meeting, and determines how long each item should take, what action it requires, and what priority it has. In the meeting itself, the Agenda Owner would keep one eye on the agenda and the other on the clock. They let the group know when it's time to move on.

·        "Off-Track Jack." This person's assignment is to pay attention to the discussion and catch the group if it begins to wander off-track. The group can then decide if the issue is relevant or important enough to continue discussion. If it turns out that the topic is important and requires more time to resolve it, the group can decide if they want to put it on the "Issues List." Off-Track Jack adds the item to the list and asks, "What is the best way to get this item addressed in the future?" He or she then makes sure that item gets addressed in the future.

·        "The Summarizer." This person's job is to restate how the group handled each agenda item. In other words, The Summarizer might say, " For this agenda item about the company picnic, we discussed canceling it because of low attendance last year, but agreed that it would send the wrong message. We decided to let the employees vote on several choices of dates and get their input on what they would like. Tom is going to draw up a simple, one page survey and bring it to the next meeting." The Summarizer will also be able to help the group get back on track if it starts to wander off, because he or she will be paying close attention.

·        "The To-Do Monitor." This person's job is to collect all the Action Plans on a list. At the end of the meeting, he or she will read off the list to make sure everyone knows exactly what they are accountable for. The To-Do Monitor must nail down the Who, What, When, Where, and How before the end of the meeting. This will save endless hours at future meetings, re-discussing action items that weren't fully fleshed out. Enough time must be left at the end of the meeting to do this important task.

·        "The Participation Police." This person's role is to make sure everyone's opinion is heard and considered. This person might notice that someone is being quiet and could ask, "What do you think Amy?" Or to get more opinions, might say, "Let's hear from everyone. We only know what two people are thinking so far."

In addition to roles the group may want to take on, it's important to come up with some groundrules that will guide behavior. For instance:

·        "The Heated Discussion Rule." The group could agree to a code of behavior when it comes to disagreements. One group I was working with decided on the following approach. If someone disagreed, they would raise their hand briefly while the other person was speaking. When the speaker was finished they could state their case, but only after they had restated the first person's position. This let everyone know who wanted the floor next and forced that person to be a good listener, rather than tuning out and focusing only on what he or she was going to say next.

Another way to stay in control of your meeting is to have a "Scribe." The group may want someone to keep track of what the group is discussing on a large easel pad. This is a great way to keep everyone focused and on track. The group is able to self-facilitate if it can see the process in black and white.

Since we all spend so much time in meetings, isn't it smart to make sure they are the best use of your time? In this age of "continuous improvement," managing your meeting process could be a big improvement that will make everyone more productive.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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