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Keeping Minutes While You Waste Hours

ASSOCIATED PRESS

You know the scenario. The boss calls the staff together and--Please, no!--closes the door. The hours tick by, and heads bob as sleep--sweet sleep--tantalizes the dulled senses.

It’s meeting time!

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

As companies push for efficiency and give employees more say, many people are meeting more and accomplishing less, management experts say.

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“We’re having too many meetings called to deal with trivia under the pretense of collaboration,” said Sharon Lippincott, a Pittsburgh-based consultant who is dedicated to ending the meeting madness.

Many upper-level managers spend 60% to 70% of their time in meetings, said Mitchell Nash, a partner of Interaction Associates Inc., a training and consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass.

Some companies are working hard to cut down on that time. Employees at companies still in the Dark Age of meetings estimate that about half their meetings are a waste of time, Nash said.

“A company could be wasting thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

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Nash said the most common complaints about meetings include:

* The purpose of the meeting is unclear.

* The meeting participants are unprepared.

* Key people are absent or late.

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* The conversation veers off track.

* Meeting participants don’t discuss issues--they dominate the conversation, argue or take no part at all.

* Decisions made at the meeting are not followed up on.

An executive at the Software Engineering Institute in Pittsburgh may have put it best when he described meetings in an anonymous survey as “a place where you keep the minutes and lose the hours.”

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Then there’s the sign in a conference room at the Valley News Dispatch of Tarentum, Pa., that says: “Are you lonely? Working on your own? Hate making decisions? HOLD A MEETING!”

“People dread meetings,” Nash said.

But meetings can work, if they’re conducted in the right way.

Maria D’Abruzzo, a quality manager for McDonald’s Corp. in the Pittsburgh area, has called many meetings to talk about changes designed to improve productivity.

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“In any organization in the throes of change . . . you tend to meet more because you’re trying to lay the foundation,” she said.

She said planning and organization keep meetings on track. She distributes agendas before meetings and posts the agenda on a large flip-chart in the meeting room. Records track whether decisions made in the meeting are acted on.

Some meetings, especially large ones or those involving different levels of management, run best with a facilitator--an outside party whose only role is to focus on keeping the meeting flowing.

“A facilitator typically understands what the goals of the meeting are and is involved in the planning,” D’Abruzzo said.

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The Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has been working to improve its meetings since 1992, when the institute enlisted Xerox Corp. to help 300 employees with a number of management problems.

Pete Malpass, a project leader at the institute, teaches new employees techniques including conflict resolution and how to offer constructive criticism.

The training for new employees has been cut from 7 to 5 1/2 hours.

“We practice on ourselves what we preach to others,” he said.

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Meeting agendas are considered so important that employees are allowed to walk out of meetings that convene without one. They rarely do walk out, but they usually insist on putting together an agenda if their leader does not provide one.

Every meeting has a leader, a facilitator, a timekeeper and a note taker.

“We were terrible at meetings when I got here 3 1/2 years ago,” Malpass said. “This is delightful.”

Running bad meetings can be expensive. Lippincott estimates a meeting of eight people who earn $40,000 a year could cost $320 an hour, including salary and benefit costs. That’s nearly $6 a minute.

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As companies tighten belts, executives are forced to justify the costs of meetings along with all their other expenses.

David Kliman, a travel manager for Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. in Novato, Calif., estimates the cost and return on investment for major meetings. “There is constant pressure for anyone in business to quantify and qualify their results,” said Kliman, who is president of the Meeting Professionals International trade association.

Meeting planners are increasingly using technology such as video cameras to hold meetings without bringing the participants together in the same room.

Lippincott’s book, “Meetings: Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts,” (more on the doughnuts later), provides guidelines for meeting management:

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* State in one or two sentences exactly what you would like your meeting to accomplish.

* Decide whether a meeting is the best way to accomplish this. If so, distribute an agenda at least a couple days in advance.

* Set ground rules to maintain focus, respect and order during the meeting.

* Take responsibility for the outcome of the meeting. For example, help keep the discussion on track and help resolve conflicts.

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* If your meeting isn’t working, try other tools. They could include brainstorming techniques or computer software that helps you create the agenda.

“A meeting is a process that begins when you decide to have one, and it doesn’t end until all the action items are completed,” Lippincott said.

Now for the doughnuts. Snacks--fat-laden or health-conscious, take your pick--add a nice social dimension to meetings, Lippincott said. But she cautions against conducting a meeting while people are eating full meals:

“It’s very hard to conduct serious business while people are stuffing their faces.”

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