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My appeal to anyone out there who organises, conducts or attends meetings

November 24, 2011 6 comments

Where do I begin with this one?  My feelings about meetings are that often, a great deal is said, very little is decided, very few actions are agreed upon, and virtually nothing is followed up.

I have attended staff meetings, working party meetings, committee meetings, group meetings, department meetings, and more, over a period of  over 20 years, not only at MPoW, but those that preceded it and elsewhere. I’m pretty sure that these are not unique experiences, but endemic in modern institutions.  (How many hours of my life have been lost to meetings? To travel too far down this route of reflection would lead to despair, so let me digress no further!)

To structure my appeal,  I shall revert to my favourite writing form when under stress – The List!

I offer below – freely and with heightened hope,  my personal list of what tend to be the features of the VERY FEW good meetings I have attended in my time:

  1. Clarity for all attendees about what type of meeting it is, for example, is this a meeting about problem-solving, decision-making, management, feedback, information, planning or a combination of these?
  2. An agenda, published well in advance of the meeting.  (The consequence of not doing so means you ‘invite’ attendees to arrive unprepared; you also offer the floor to those who love the sound of their own voices and silence the true thinkers – those who prefer / need to think and reflect before coming to any conclusion or offering contributions. Is that what you want?)
  3. An agenda that is manageable in the time.  (Don’t put things on the agenda that simply cannot be covered in the time you have available.  Don’t put an item on the agenda where there is no time to debate or discuss it – you KNOW if the item is likely to generate debate – you do, really, you do!)
  4. Where possible, host the meeting in a comfortable environment, with a layout which encourages rather than stifles debate and discussion.
  5. Start on time.  (I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, my time is precious – there are always other things I could be doing with it.  If a meeting is supposed to start at 4pm, it should start at 4pm.  Don’t you know it’s rude to be late?  Likewise, the meeting should finish on time.  Don’t assume that other people are free to continue just because you are. That is treating attendees in the same manner as those cold callers who phone when you are eating dinner and assume you are keen to discuss your energy tariff or Sky account without the courtesy of asking if you are free to talk!)
  6. A chairperson who is well-prepared and capable of remaining focused, as well as being strong and confident enough to deal with contradictory opinions.
  7. Maintain focus on the agenda: (as I’ve said – but I need you to hear! – my time is precious and I’m sure yours is too.  Don’t digress, don’t waffle, stick to the point and work towards making those actions / decisions, or whatever it is that the meeting’s aim dictates.)
  8. Don’t be afraid of controversy or problematic discussions. ( If these don’t happen in the meeting, they will take place behind closed office doors, and ‘issues’ will escalate.  It is best to confront difficulty openly, within a framework of courteous discussion.  People should feel able to disagree, but this can be done professionally.)
  9. Someone appointed to take minutes – and given advance warning of this.  (Asking someone to take minutes during the meeting will truly irritate them and potentially add to their stress levels.  If you are anything like me, you want to ‘get your head in the right place’ for taking minutes – and maybe even come prepared with your highly sophisticated minute-taking equipment!!)
  10. Where decision-making is required, avoid involving too many parties. ( This leads to delayed action and frustration.)
  11. Follow-up on last minutes /actions:  people need to be held accountable. ( Individuals need to accept ownership for decisions made; actions need to be followed up and reviewed.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Of course the minutes should be published as soon after the meeting as possible and never, never on the day of the next meeting!)
  12. Assuming number 2, above, is in place, encourage debate from all parties where appropriate – (don’t allow the loud-mouths to dominate – they often have the least to ‘say’.)
  13. Consider the frequency of the meetings:( people tend to anticipate meetings as they do a large filling in a front tooth.  However, this is because they attend so many poor and ineffective meetings!   It is stressful to attend meetings with overfull, unmanageable agendas.  If you need more meeting time, don’t ‘shy away’ from organising more.  Much better to have more frequent, but well planned-meetings where things ‘get done’.  This is a  satisfying and constructive use of  everyone’s time).

And a final rebellious thought for those who attend, rather than conduct meetings: are you prepared to tolerate losing hours of your life to ‘shoddy’ meeting engagements?  Why not speak out and insist upon, at the very least, some basic meeting standards?  Of course, real life can get in the way of a good meeting and we must be understanding of this reality – it is persistent bad practice we must resist!

Certainly, my outburst has made me feel better already – blood pressure levels have gradually reduced, number by number, as my list has progressed!  I would welcome your comments below.

“A little rebellion now and then… is a medicine necessary for the sound health of meetings.” – Thomas Jefferson (with a very minor tweak by me!)

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