MEETINGS

Meetings, while disliked by many, are an essential part of myriad business operations. They are often the best venue for communications to take place, for issues to be discussed, for priorities to be set, and for decisions to be made in various realms of business management. Because it is more common for responsibility to be spread out across an organization these days, and because cross-functional efforts are common at almost every business, meetings are the best method for achieving organizational participation.

Holding successful meetings, then, is essential. Poorly run meetings waste time and fail to generate ideas, and unfortunately, far too high a percentage of business meetings are characterized by ineffective processes. Indeed, some analysts estimate that up to 50 percent of meeting time is wasted. Entrepreneurs and small business managers should thus take the appropriate steps to ensure that the meetings that they call and lead are productive.

PLANNING A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS MEETING

The most important step in holding a successful meeting is planning. This includes determining who should attend, who will run the meeting, and what will be discussed. Before the meeting, finalize a list of attendees. This is especially important for meetings where a quorum is needed to conduct official business. Without a quorum, it is usually best to simply postpone the meeting until more group members can attend.

When determining who to include in a meeting, several criteria should be weighed. Charlie Hawkins pointed out in Public Relations Quarterly that the most important personnel to invite are those people who can best achieve the objective of the meeting. This can be people who are affected by a problem, those who will be most affected by the outcome of the meeting, experts on the subject at hand, or people who are known to be good problem-solvers or idea generators. Inviting people solely for political reasons should be avoided, although experts recognize that this may not always be possible. Avoid inviting disruptive people unless they absolutely have to be there. Finally, some meeting topics may benefit from the inclusion of an informed outsider who has no stake in the issue; sometimes a fresh, objective perspective can be most beneficial.

Once the meeting's moderator has determined who needs to be in attendance, he or she should develop an agenda and circulate it in advance of the meeting. There are two schools of thought on how to order the agenda. One school recommends starting the agenda with less-important items that can be handled quickly and easily. The theory is that this helps to build a positive atmosphere and makes it easier to move on to tougher issues later in the meeting. The other school of thought, however, feels that this is a waste of time and that the agenda should be prioritized, with the most important items coming first. This means jumping right into the most significant issue. Regularly scheduled meetings, such as staff meetings, lend themselves to the "most important first" style.

Many consultants, managers, and business owners contend that the traditional agenda model of "old minutes, old business, new business, adjournment" does not really work anymore. Agendas need to be more fluid and dynamic, yet still need to be structured and effective. Adhering to the following tips can help ensure that the meeting agenda can be addressed effectively:

* State the purpose of the meeting and write it clearly at the top of the agenda. If no clear goal or topic comes to mind, then perhaps the meeting is not even necessary. Consider using a memo, e-mail, conference call, or series of one-to-one meetings to canvas participants about meeting topics prior to creating the agenda.
* Set priorities. Reading the minutes from a past meeting is a colossal waste of time. It is ok to hand out the minutes from the previous meeting, but reading them is just not needed.
* Less is more. One of the fundamental meeting mistakes is tackling too many issues. Keep the agenda focused on a few key items.

If other group members are to play a role at the meeting, call or visit them once the agenda is established so that they clearly understand their role. Assign a time limit to each of the agenda items. Having time limits helps keep a meeting on track and prevents rambling discussions. Never include the agenda item "Any Other Business." It encourages time-wasting at the end of the meeting and also serves as a method for a savvy (or sneaky) meeting participant to exploit the meeting by bringing up an item that is of importance to him or her alone.

Once an agenda has been established, many consultants recommend the appointment of a meeting facilitator in advance of the meeting itself. It is the facilitator's job to keep the meeting focused and on-schedule. He or she must remain "issue neutral" and encourage the free exchange of ideas without taking sides. The best facilitators are good listeners and communicators who successfully blend assertiveness with tact and discipline with humor, set a cooperative tone, and are achievement-oriented. The facilitator should remain focused and not allow side issues to distract from the agenda. Appointing a separate time-keeper who alerts the facilitator when agreed-upon time limits are approaching is recommended. Some professional meeting planners recommend using co-facilitators—this keeps one facilitator from falling in love with his or her own ideas. For small companies, this idea may not be feasible. However, if the company does hold a lot of meetings, perhaps several company members can be sent for formal training in meeting facilitation. This would make it easier to appoint co-facilitators.

For small companies, perhaps facilitators are not needed at every meeting. Indeed, small business owners often serve as facilitator, key information source, and chief strategist all in one. But some small businesses have successfully instituted systems in which meeting planning and leadership responsibilities are rotated among staff members.

CONDUCTING A SUCCESSFUL MEETING

Once the planning has been concluded, it is time to hold the meeting. Adhering to several simple rules can dramatically increase the likelihood that your meeting will be a productive one.

* If you are facilitating the meeting, arrive early and be prepared. No exceptions to this rule are allowed. A late facilitator dampens the mood and gets the meeting off on the wrong foot because it makes it impossible for the meeting to start on time. Indeed, provided the facilitator is present, the meeting should begin at the time scheduled, even if other scheduled participants have not yet arrived. Waiting for latecomers rewards them for their behavior and implies that you value their time more than you value the time of those who showed up on time. If one of the latecomers is essential to the first agenda item, be flexible and move on to a later agenda item to keep things moving.
* Facilitators interested in making certain that the meeting proceeds effectively should set the appropriate tone from the outset. Chit-chat should be kept to a minimum, especially at the start of the meeting. Do not be a dictator—social interaction is an important part of building a cohesive team—but do not let valuable meeting time be wasted either. "Nothing saps the spirit like watching, powerless, as a meeting wanders into oblivion," observed Phaedra Hise in Inc.
* Be sure to stick to the timed meeting agenda that was developed at the planning stage. This builds consensus for tabling discussions that are going nowhere. It also makes it easier to agree to send problems back to committees, and it keeps one long-winded group member from dominating the meeting. Using a phrase such as "We would like to hear what you have to say, but in order for the group to be out on time we have to move on," is a very successful tactic.
* If some members of the group are not participating, actively seek out their opinion. Groups tend to be dominated by the most outgoing or opinionated members, but the quiet members often have great ideas of their own. Do not let one person or group dominate the floor.
* Stay focused on the purpose of the meeting. If the group that is meeting is a large board that is primarily responsible for delegating tasks to smaller committees, make sure the larger group does not make the mistake of doing the work for the smaller groups instead of passing it on.
* Schedule meetings for times that are likely to encourage concentrate on agenda items. For example, facilitators may want to consider holding short meetings before lunch and quitting time, when staff are less likely to dawdle over non-work related subjects. Conversely, many analysts believe that meetings that are held immediately after lunch, when people are often at their least energetic, are apt to be less effective.
* Stand-up meetings are often touted as a great way to ensure that meeting participants stay focused. Another way to stay focused is to use what Hawkins termed the "parking lot" strategy. During the course of one discussion, it is not unusual for important ideas or concerns to arise that are not related to the topic at hand. When that happens, the facilitator can call "time out," identify the issue, and place it in a so-called "parking lot" so that it can be addressed at a later time. The group can then get back to the main focus of the meeting without losing topics or ideas that may be of importance to the firm.
* Try to establish a consensus on business decisions that are arrived at in meetings. "Building consensus does not mean caving in to conform with what the boss wants," said Hawkins. "It does mean examining the plus and minus aspects of possible alternatives, and picking the one(s) that best meet the defined goals. The normal way of deciding—by voting—inevitably produces a win-lose situation. Those who are in the minority are liable to undermine the decision. Even if a voting process is used to pick the winners, a consensus process is recommended to isolate the concerns and address them. When this is done, the solution is refined to the point where everyone in the group can live with the recommendation and support it. A group that builds consensus in a constructive atmosphere is most likely a highly effective team."
* Ensure that decisions that are made in meetings are adequately disseminated, especially to staff members who are personally impacted by the decision. Make sure that company resources are appropriately redistributed to enable execution of decisions.

MEETING PITFALLS

Despite the best efforts and the strongest facilitator, meetings can quickly spin out of control. Following are some common pitfalls that beset meetings, launching them into downward spirals of inaction and/or flawed decision making:

* The facilitator puts aside the meeting agenda for his or her own personal agenda
* The facilitator allows interruptions such as telephone calls, etc.
* Loud group members are allowed to dominate the meeting
* Decisions are made based on generalizations, exaggeration, guesswork, and assumptions
* Discussions consistently wander off the topic
* Key members of the group are not present
* Overly ambitious agendas
* Meetings that exceed previously agreed-upon time limits
* Minutes that are inaccurate or biased
* Too many participants
* Waiting for latecomers to arrive
* An unclear, or inappropriate, decision-making process. For example, taking a vote when leadership and unilateral action by a company's CEO is clearly needed.

MEETINGS IN A FAMILY-OWNED BUSINESS

Many small businesses are family-owned. While it might seem that a family-operated business might not need to worry about holding successful meetings, that is not true. Family meetings can be an important means of keeping the business fresh, generating new ideas, and keeping grievances to a minimum.

Family meetings, when run properly, can help ensure business success and its continued survival into the next generation. The meetings do not need to be formal, but they should be structured and should be held on a regular basis. Because a family business affects all family members—not just those who are an active part of the business—some analysts contend that everyone in the family should be invited to the meetings. If everyone takes the meeting seriously and is willing to participate, the meeting can lead to greater cohesion, communication, and long-range planning.

Business experts say that the agenda for such a meeting can combine business and pleasure. Serious topics—creating a mission statement, strategy planning, setting a clear path of succession, professional growth and development, market analysis, and estate planning are some examples—typically need to be addressed during these meetings, but the agenda should also reflect a recognition of the family environment in which it is taking place. Meetings that include a meal (dinner, picnic, etc.) as a centerpiece are among the most popular options.

As with any other meeting, the family meeting should have a facilitator. An outside facilitator can be brought in if family members are concerned that objectivity might otherwise be hard to achieve, but be forewarned that hiring a facilitator can be expensive. It is possible to use a family member as a facilitator as long as that person is able to remain unbiased in the face of emotional discussions. Steering clear of longtime family conflicts is also a must if the facilitator is to succeed at his or her job, although admittedly this can sometimes be difficult. "Facilitating one's own family meeting can seem daunting because of the potential emotional intensity of family discussions," wrote John Ward and Sharon Krone in Nation's Business. "To be effective, a family member acting as a facilitator must overcome emotional barriers, dispel longtime family stereotypes, and curtail long-standing conflicts among family members. All are tough to do."

Ward and Krone provided several other tips for holding successful family meetings, including the following:

* Consider using co-facilitators as a safeguard to prevent one family member from wielding undue influence over the meeting's direction and tone.
* The facilitator must keep others involved. Assign jobs—keeping notes, creating charts or overheads, keying and distributing minutes, or chairing committees—and avoid the impression that one person is dominating the meeting.
* Provide formal training for the facilitator. While the person selected may have strong interpersonal and leadership skills, formal training in communications, conflict resolution, active listening, decision making, and group management can prove invaluable.
* Each person attending the meeting should reflect on his or her own strengths and weaknesses and personality style.
* Recognize when professional help is needed. Intense conflicts and domination by one person or a small group of people are examples of when it might be time to bring in a professional facilitator.
* Avoid surprises. Distribute agendas and notes in advance if possible.
* Set ground rules for the meeting.
* Have fun. Even if the business at hand is very serious, set aside some time for relaxation or fun.
* Use a well-lit meeting room with comfortable furniture. Make sure refreshments are provided and provide ample breaks.
* Do not rush things, and do not overload the agenda with too many heavy topics if at all possible.

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