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Experts Offer Agenda to Make Meetings More Productive

Ensuring that all participants are prepared and focused on the issues will add to discussion and cut time-wasting.

April 15, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Company meetings are often considered a waste of time, not to mention boring and unproductive.

That was the case at NetCatalyst, a Santa Monica high-tech firm with 36 employees. The meetings were haphazardly scheduled, said Derek McLeish, the company's chief operating officer. Rounding up participants was a problem. Agenda items didn't always get addressed. Decisions seemed to take eons to reach.

"We work on Internet time," McLeish said. "That means you have to move more quickly. You can't take a lot of time decision-making, especially today. Your competition will move right past you."

McLeish revamped NetCatalyst's meeting procedures by scheduling get-togethers Monday mornings and tempting participants with bagels and doughnuts.

Days before each get-together, he had employees e-mail him about their works in progress and objectives.

He compiled the information into a master agenda that he used to direct the meetings, and he learned through experience how to keep his group focused and the discussions on point and how to gauge energy levels.

Though companies struggle to breathe life into monotonous meetings, many are not asking a very basic question: Are those meetings really necessary?

"We still have not learned how much labor, cost and agony we're causing American businesses," said Bill Lampton, founder of Championship Communication in Gainesville, Ga.

Too many organizations "operate under the assumption that if they don't hold a meeting--usually a lengthy one--there's no way to relieve a problem or promote a project," Lampton said.

Frequently, their issues can be resolved and data collected through faster and easier means, such as e-mail, questionnaires or phone calls, he said.

Before calling a meeting, ask whether it merits your group's collective time and expense, Lampton said.

To calculate this, estimate what your participants charge for an hour of their services. Multiply that by the length of your proposed meeting, "then determine whether the intended agenda merits such costly attention."

If you are convinced a meeting is necessary, be sure that all those invited are clear about its mission. Prepare for the meeting carefully and don't count on winging it. Poor preparation is the No. 1 reason most meetings fail, said Richard Chang, president of Richard Chang Associates Inc. in Irvine and co-author of "Meetings That Work!" (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1999).

Other tips for successful meetings:

Before the Meeting

Create a detailed agenda, listing issues you'll discuss and the time you'll devote to each one. Circulate the agenda to participants before the meeting to stimulate thought, said Diane DiResta, president of New York-based DiResta Communications. This also will help more introverted people plan what they'd like to say.

Whom Should You Invite?

Don't invite all the usual suspects just to keep them informed or ward against hurt feelings. Invite only decision makers, subject-matter experts and, in some cases, the people who'll have to implement the decisions you make. Make sure all come prepared or you'll end up postponing decisions, explaining things twice and frustrating those who acted more responsibly, Chang said.

Start Positive and On Time

"It's always how you start your first meeting that sets the stage for your other meetings," said Agnes Huff of Agnes Huff Communications in Los Angeles.

Select an appropriate site for your meeting. Stay away from glass-enclosed rooms (which tempt participants to watch people in the corridors) and meeting places with large windows looking onto busy streets or scenic vistas, Huff said. Visit the site in advance to be sure it's not too cold, hot or dark. Test your audio-visual equipment.

If stragglers drift in throughout your meetings, establish a no-tolerance lateness policy early on, Huff said. Take them aside and ask them to be more prompt. In extreme cases, when serious issues must be addressed quickly, consider following the lead of fed-up schoolteachers--lock your door when you're about to begin.

Consider scheduling your meetings at odd times--say, 9:13 a.m.--"because people will pay extra attention to it and be more likely to get there on time," said Kristin Gabriel, co-principal of Ecom Communications in Los Angeles.

And to avoid interruptions from nonparticipants, hang a board on your conference room door on which messages can be left for those inside, Chang said.

During Your Meetings

Select a person to objectively record your minutes. Included in this record should be issues discussed, who raised them and what got resolved.

Before you begin your session, consider asking participants, "Are there any questions?" said Michael Napoliello, co-founder of U.S. Marketing & Promotions in Torrance.

"This allows people to clear their minds of their concerns," he said. "They might bring up schedule conflicts, personal emergencies, changes that may make the traditional agenda no longer effective. You'd be surprised at how polite people can be about things like this unless you ask about them."

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