Saturday, July 19, 2008

Turning Meetings Into Doings

Recently a friend of mine asked me to run for officer of a professional committee we are involved in. “Jeff”, he said, “we only meet once a month for an hour. I’m sure you can spare that kind of time for a worthy cause.” How could I refuse such a promising proposition? I eagerly joined, wanting to make a difference. However, I quickly learned what most of us know; many meetings are a waste of time.
“We only meet once a month for an hour.” How many times have you heard that pitch? You bought-in only to be pulled into a group that met only because someone said they should. Then you end up meeting for an hour and a half of directionless conversations. These may even have been followed up with an agreement to meet again to continue the discussion. You then learned to lead and took the same lessons with you. This misuse of meetings has contributed to our earned reputations of having meetings just to conduct meetings.
Though meetings are an essential part of leading professional, many are far from necessary. Often meetings are put together for the wrong reasons, leaving group members feeling frustrated about the waste of time. Some leaders confuse having meetings with accomplishment or activity. Some misuse meetings as a method of passing information, exercising authority, visiting, or airing opinions. Members leave without having impact, input, or a feeling of accomplishment.
However this frustration can be avoided by following six simple steps. If you can address these rules your meetings will impact your projects with positive results: determine need, calculate the cost, set up the meeting, create the agenda, conduct the meeting, and finally follow up.
First, determine the need for a meeting. Most problems can be solved with a quick phone call, email, office call, or a chat in the hallway. If there is no reason to formally bring everyone in, then by all means avoid it. Save meetings for the timely and absolutely necessary times when everyone’s efforts are needed. Ask yourself the following questions: Can I accomplish this with better communication? Is there another way to get the needed results? Can someone make the decision for the whole group? Am I just lonely? If the answer is yes to any of those questions, then don’t have the meeting.
Next, calculate the cost. Once you decide that you do need a meeting, try to eliminate another determining factor; the cost. The Essential Manager’s Manual, a text book used in some graduate level communication courses, uses a simple formula for figuring how much a meeting will cost. Add the combined salaries of attendants plus expenses then divide by work hours per year. For example, if your meeting requires the attendance of someone from the church staff member and others from local businesses, you will need to figure everyone’s salaries. Once you have the total, add to that any miscellaneous costs. These costs include the rental of a conference room, cost of refreshments, per diem for guest speakers, and etcetera. Once you have the total, divide it by the work hours per year. Most businesses recognize 2,080 work hours per year. For example, if the combined salary of the group and miscellaneous expenses is $250,000 then the cost of a one hour meeting is $120.00. Ask yourself if the value of your meeting exceeds the cost.
Dollar amounts are not the only expenses to consider with volunteers. The next costs are intangible. Though there is no set formula, as the leader, you have to compare these costs with the potential benefits. Since most meetings take place on weekend or the evenings after work, you should consider these intangible costs for each member of your group. Badly planned meetings leave volunteers and committee members to unnecessarily experience missing meals, foregoing play time with grandchildren, not helping with household chores, being away from friends and family, spending gas money, rearranging schedules, reacting to last minutes events and putting off personal agendas. Motivated volunteers expect to sacrifice for the good work; however they shouldn’t expect to waste valuable time.
Setting up the meeting involves deciding who will attend and the purpose or what you hope to accomplish. After you have determined that the need and that the benefit of having the meeting will exceed the costs, then it’s time to set up. Your committee by-laws may require everyone’s presence, or you may decide that for planning purposes you need everyone’s input. Perhaps you only need the key players in the organization. You have diligently figured the financial and intangible costs and decided that minimum participation is better. Either way, this is a vital to the group’s ability to act and the impact it will have.
Next, you should outline what success looks like and backward plan from there. If your meeting is to conduct training for prayer walking in surrounding neighborhoods during the next school break, use this to set measurable milestones. Identify the projected date, determine how long training will take and decide when to begin and how you will measure the results. From there you can identify the teachers develop the curriculum. Knowing and communicating the point of the meeting is a major factor in making it a huge success.
Create an agenda to reinforce the purpose of the meeting. Up to now we have discussed how to determine the need and actions leading to the meeting. The agenda is a powerful and effective tool to use well before the actual meeting. An agenda is nothing more than a chronological order of topics to be discussed during the meeting.
At this preparation stage, pre-publishing the agenda to all invitees is a valuable time saving tool. This allows them to prepare information, decisions, or resources. With advance warning and a thorough agenda, your group will be more informed about what is expected, how to arrange their schedules and will feel valued as members. Later, call on all those you have invited to remind them of the agenda. This will prepare you for tough questions as well as help you streamline and fine tune before the meeting.
Finally, you can conduct the meeting. Show up early and prepare the room. Work out where participants will sit or stand. Placing key people strategically will ensure maximum participation. Make sure you have your resources, your notes and especially your agenda on hand. As people arrive, greet them and guide them to their places. Start with a positive attitude and have everyone warmed up for the meeting. If you can “break the ice” before the meeting, you will have more time for the objective.
Begin the meeting using the agenda. Set the ground rules and agree how you will handle disputes, confidentiality, input and who will present. If you haven’t done so already, select someone to take the minutes of the meeting. Minutes are nothing more than a record of time, location, discussion and agreements made. Have the person take detailed notes to be converted to minutes at a later time. At this stage their priority is to capture a snapshot of the meeting.
Go over the agenda to refresh everyone. As you go through the events, encourage input by asking open ended questions. For example you might ask, “Who do you recommend that we approach about helping our deployed soldiers’ families?” If you are good, you may get more suggestions and input than you expected. Much of it may be off the agenda so be prepared to guide the conversations back. If anyone wishes to add something new, write it down and agree to cover it at a later time or date.
Finally, conduct the follow up. When the meeting is finished, review the agenda and the agreements made and solutions brought up. Summarize key points made and agree to follow up to check on progress. Set goals and decide who has the next action, and use milestones to measure accomplishments. Republish the agenda and distribute the minutes at a later date to keep the group mindful of the meeting’s results.
Whether or not to hold a meeting is a big decision. Meetings held for the sake of meeting are a waste of time and resources. Using the six steps identified above will ensure that your necessary meetings have more impact. Such accomplishments improve the morale and help volunteers to keep themselves motivate and focused on the objective. Then, when you invite someone to join your committee for an hour a month you will have established credibility and they will be happy to be a part of something powerful.

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