Guidelines for effective meetings
by Robert McKenna
Time is money! Learn how to communicate more effectively.
Communication will always be an important responsibility of business owners as they spend significant potions of their time interacting with employees. Meetings are usually a necessary means of communication; however, business owners must keep in mind that time is a limited resource for them and their employees. Since time is money, business owners must improve their usage of time, especially during an economic downturn. Before scheduling a meeting, be certain it is necessary by asking the following questions:
- Could the necessary information be communicated via e-mail, telephone conversation, conference call or memo?
- Could the number of participants be reduced?
- Could the meeting be shortened?
If the meeting proves to be necessary, the individual planning it must set clear objectives, roles and guidelines for the participants.
Maintain a clear objective. Establish written objectives for your meetings and communicate them to attendees in advance. Discussing and agreeing on meeting objectives in advance will help the entire group remain focused and on track. Always use an agenda. Agendas help to manage time, maintain focus and reduce the likelihood of �hidden agendas.� Assign a reasonable amount of time for each item on the agenda. More importantly, always strive to conclude the meeting on time. Ask others to prepare. If information is provided in advance, participants will typically come prepared to contribute. Circulate the objectives, agenda and any homework in advance. Inform attendees they will be asked to actively participate. The goal is to get people thinking about the meeting�s objectives prior to the meeting. Practice conference room courtesy. If necessary, reserve the meeting room or location in advance, and cancel the reservation if plans change.
The meeting leader organizes the meeting, schedules the time and location, confirms attendance, encourages diversity of opinion, promotes problem solving, manages conflict and commends and supports the contributions of all participants. The meeting leader usually assigns the following roles. The facilitator, or �air traffic controller,� should concentrate on the meeting process, not the content. The role of the facilitator is not to actively participate in the discussion, but to provide an objective ear regarding the pace, tone and flow of the meeting. If the meeting strays from the agenda, the facilitator alerts the meeting leader. This allows the meeting leader and attendees to focus solely on the discussion and not worry about the management of the agenda. The recorder, or secretary, is responsible for writing a summary of the meeting. This alleviates participants from having to take notes. As such, participants are free to listen and contribute. A flip chart is an effective vehicle for posting notes during the meeting as it keeps the group focused, helps participants avoid repetition and later serves as a permanent record of proceedings.
Subject matter experts should be present to provide background information and serve as a resource for the group. In an effort to accommodate the experts� time, they should only be scheduled to join the meeting for the appropriate portion of the agenda. One meeting participant can take on more than one of the aforementioned roles; however, the role of facilitator should only be taken on by one individual as he or she must be free to concentrate solely on the meeting�s process.
Guidelines for meeting leaders
It is important for meeting leaders to learn and use the guidelines for effective meetings. However, meeting leaders also have other responsibilities.
Value everyone�s time. Begin the meeting at the scheduled time and conclude at the time indicated on the agenda (or earlier, if possible). Generally, you should not delay a meeting due to late arrivals. In addition, you should not recap for late arrivals. Instead, request that these individuals catch up after the meeting�s conclusion. Stay on track. Open the meeting by restating the meeting�s objective and reviewing the agenda. Prepare thought starters. An effective way for meeting leaders to jumpstart creative sessions is to create a draft of potential ideas. This serves as a thought provoker and conversation starter, and also speeds the brainstorming process by providing a point of departure for items on the agenda. Keep the discussion moving. Do not allow one person to dominate the discussion. Ask open-ended questions such as, �What do you think about that?� and paraphrase responses by saying, �In other words, you�re saying…� Discourage disruptions. With the exception of emergencies, do not allow phone calls or interruptions. Designate an individual not in attendance (such as the company�s receptionist) to allow only specified interruptions.
Let creative juices flow. If you and your staff members are in the middle of a productive discussion or important problem solving session, do not interrupt it simply to satisfy an arbitrary agenda. If the meeting strays from the initial agenda, interaction between the facilitator and meeting leader becomes key. The facilitator may inform the meeting leader that the meeting has wavered from the agenda; however, the meeting leader retains the authority to allow the productive discussion or problem solving to continue if he or she deems it significant. Creative juices sometimes create issues that must be addressed at another time. These issues are commonly known as �parking lot issues.� Parking lot issues are discussed in the follow-up portion of the meeting described below.
Follow up and follow through. The success or �return on investment� of the meeting will almost always be determined by the processes, procedures, etc. implemented or improved as a result of the meeting. Issues requiring attention must be addressed by the conclusion of the meeting in order to resolve unanswered questions and do the following:
- Confirm the recipient of each responsibility assigned or delegated.
- Confirm completion deadlines for each responsibility.
- Determine how parking lot issues (those topics that arose during the meeting that were not part of the agenda) should be handled.
- Plan the next meeting�s preliminary agenda, objectives, roles, etc., if appropriate.
- Review the overall meeting. Discuss what worked and what should be changed for the next meeting.
- Ensure the recorder has captured key points and follow-up items (including the names of those responsible for certain projects and the deadlines of those tasks) in a meeting summary.
Guidelines for meeting participants
Meeting participants can use the following tips to help stimulate meeting participation and overall involvement. Do your homework. Review the agenda and jot down thoughts and questions in advance. Also, prepare your portion of the Agenda/Action Plan. Be on time. If you do not arrive to the meeting on time, do not ask or expect the group to recap for your benefit. Instead, get the necessary information from the recorder during a break or at the conclusion of the meeting. Bring an open mind. The purpose of a meeting is to generate and exchange ideas, not to defend the status quo. Come preprepared to hear new ideas and, more importantly, contribute some of your own. Be an active listener. Pay attention to comments from all participants, participate when appropriate and rely on the recorder for notes. Use group time for group issues. Do not use group meeting time to discuss issues or details affecting only a few members of the group. Domineering members should avoid monopolizing the group�s time for their personal agendas.
Additional meeting ground rules
The following additional rules should be utilized by everyone in attendance. Strive for the win-win situation. Focus competitive energy on solving issues and beating the competition, not each other. The group will create better ideas and solutions if everyone works collaboratively and cooperatively. Take advantage of the group�s diversity, approaches and experiences. Create holding patterns when necessary. Only one person should have the floor at any given time. Those with questions or something further to add enter into a �holding pattern.� This provides everyone with the opportunity to have their thoughts heard, and allows the group to fully concentrate on the current dialogue. Capture thoughts on paper. If you find yourself in a holding pattern, write down any questions or thoughts so you can remain involved in the current dialogue without forgetting what you want to say.
Steer clear of heat seeking missiles. Avoid the natural tendency to react defensively to new ideas and shoot them down. Ideas should be evaluated based on their merits, not their drawbacks. Avoid distractions. Stick to the agenda. Limit side conversations, phone calls and casual stories. Defer non-agenda items (or issues not urgent or pertinent) to a parking lot for post-meeting discussion. Explain your point. When making a presentation to the group of attendees, inform them of the point you want to make. Then take time to establish your point and explain your logic. Clarify and paraphrase. Everyone should be allowed to completely clarify the point(s) they want considered. One way to accomplish this is to have the meeting leader (or another participant) paraphrase the point being made to ensure comprehension. Encourage �baby� ideas. During creative sessions, new and innovative ideas should be encouraged. These ideas, though probably not fully developed, should not be dismissed prematurely. Take baby ideas at face value and work with the positives. If the negatives can be overcome, the positives may provide the breakthrough you are seeking. Baby ideas may be handled in the same manner as parking lot issues.
The primary objective for all meetings should be to maintain productivity and generate a return for the investment in time� and time is money. As such, it is critical for the person calling and/or leading the meeting to have a plan or agenda. The meeting leader should also follow the schedule if possible, and start and end on time. More importantly, all attendees should participate. Finally, a great way for the meeting leader to ensure participation and obtain tangible results is to utilize the Agenda/Action Plan.
Remember, a meeting leader�s keys to a successful meeting are summarized as follows:
- Stay on track
- Encourage participation from everyone
- Start and end on time
- Use the issues discussed and learned to improve the meeting�s results
Attendees at a “Minding My Own Business” Workshop have been exposed to the Fremont Business Operating System. This system is the baseline for all management consulting performed by affiliates of The Fremont Group. It starts with a clear identification of your goals—and the goals of your spouse. What is it that you really want from your business. Once the reason for your business to exist is identified, a financial model of your business must be created. What results are required in order for you to obtain your goals? Many small business owners operate like the football coach with a game plan that reads, “if everything goes right we will only lose by a touchdown!” That coach won’t keep his job for long and the business owner who doesn’t have a game plan designed to win the game won’t survive long either. From the development of the financial model it can be identified (1) if the goals are obtainable; and (2) the results that must be accomplished in order to obtain the goals. This model then becomes the cornerstone of the company. It is the basis for organizational structure—what results are required from each position, the communication and evaluation of those results, accountability, and incentives. It creates the profit plan and the sales plan. It is the basis for pricing—the use of break even pricing and the establishment of pricing models. The financial model is a road map that you modify as you make wrong turns—after all, man plans and God laughs.
Put together, FBOS is your strategic plan. Owners who operate without it can be successful—particularly if they are lucky—but those who operate with it and diminishing their reliance upon luck.
Note–Fremont Business Operating System, FBOS and Minding My Own Business are registered trademarks of The Fremont Group
Communications is the process in which a person responsible for making a decision receives the knowledge that they need to effectively make that decision.
More money is lost in businesses through ineffective communications than in any other area.We all know that communications are vital.A survey of employees in any business always generates frustration regarding communications.Sometimes that frustration is having a critical effect upon the company’s bottom line and sometimes it is merely an employee’s way of “pointing the finger” so that they are not responsible.How do we separate the “excuses” from the problems?Let’s start by examining the “communications” process in your business.
Your business is constantly deluged with “data.”Phone messages come in, letters are received, emails are read, customer payments are received, customer comments, feedback and complaints are made—all of this is data.How do your employees decide what to do with that data?If this decision is merely being left to the employee without direction you are immediately losing whatever data they decide not to record.This is an unacceptable event that occurs daily in almost every business.How often have you heard someone say, “I didn’t know about that?” or “Why didn’t someone tell me about that?”To your customers it can often appear that your company simply “doesn’t listen” to them—and we all know what follows that feeling.The “integrity” of the data is also critical.Sales people making up phony records of sales calls, people posting hours worked to job numbers a week later are examples of poor data.Remember, “Garbage in; garbage out.”
But of course most data is recorded.The next issue is the processing of that data.Since we are businesses and not computers, the processing of data is the conversion of the data into “information.”Information takes the form of reports and compilations delivered in writing or verbally to a recipient.How do your employees decide how to “process” the data?Most companies have written reports they want generated and request verbal reports at meetings, but has this structure ever been defined?Do employees ever create their own reports?What happens in your business when a report goes “uncreated?”Do you often hear someone say, “I’m waiting for the report?”Are poor (no decisions are decisions) decisions made because of a lack of information?
After data is processed into information, it must be delivered to someone who gains “knowledge” as a result.Data might come in to your company in the form of a client payment.It is then converted into information by accounting by entering it on your books and producing a month-end Profit and Loss Statement.This report is then delivered to you, the owner who now has the “knowledge” that the payment has been made.Or do you?You might know that money has come in but you might not know its’ source.Or you might not know that the payment has been made until a month later when the P&L is delivered.Therefore we have developed four criteria for the evaluation of information.For information to really create the type of knowledge that we need it must meet four criteria: It must be (1) timely; (2) accurate; (3) usable; and (4) delivered at a reasonable cost.Without meeting these criteria, your information does not produce the “knowledge” that is required for your business.
For information to be timely means that it must be produced, delivered and assimilated in a timely fashion—at a point where acting upon the information can still produce a meaningful change.Finding out in February that your company lost money last year is nice historical information but it lacks the timeliness element that is required to make it meaningful knowledge.How much of your information is truly timely?Are you operating like the football coach with no scoreboard?Or the pilot with no instruments?Accuracy is a commonly misunderstood element.Most financial reports are generated by accounting.Accounting is staffed with people who worry about everything balancing to the last nickel—and rightly so.Unfortunately this attitude often interferes with them delivering timely information for managerial purposes.Most managerial information does not require the same degree of accuracy as does your tax return.It is often more important to receive timely information with a greater margin of error which is counter to the accounting culture.Who decides how “accurate” various reports must be in your company?What matters is that it is as accurate as necessary for the purposes of the user.
For information to be converted into knowledge it must also be usable.Usable means that the person receiving the information must understand it.A technically perfect report that the recipient doesn’t understand does not produce knowledge.Do you see reports go unread?Do you see people lost during meetings?Is the issue training of the recipients or the format of the information?Lastly information must be produced at a minimum cost.Although this technically is not an element of the communication process, it is critical to the success of the business.It makes no sense to produce a report that saves $100 and costs $500.It makes no sense to hold a meeting that costs $1000 to produce a savings of $200.Who determines the cost-benefit of your forms of communication?What is the real cost of an hour meeting of six managers?
After knowledge is actually received, the recipient must apply “thought.”Thought is the responsibility for acting upon the knowledge.What is critical is that the actions taken be in alignment with the best interests of your company, which is not necessarily in the “best interests” of the person making the decision.“I see from this that a change order should be generated, but I don’t want to bother to do all the paperwork.”“I see that this customer is unhappy, but I don’t want to face him so just forget it.”Many owners do not try to control this part of the process and instead rely upon their employees
”experience” and “common sense” to make good decisions.These same owners get frustrated when these employees make “bad decisions” and yet they have no incentives for the employee to make the “right” decision.The fact is, they are making the right decision—the right one for them but not the right one for you.
The pinnacle of the communications process is “wisdom.”Wisdom results from a repetition of and effective communications process.It results from the right people making the right decisions based upon the right information.Does this happen in your company?It is reflected in your bottom line and in the morale of your employees.Wisdom is the objective of your company.
How does your company accomplish “wisdom?”First you must understand that this is a “journey” and not a “destination.”Since your people and your company and the business environment are constantly changing, the systems, procedures and controls that are required are constantly changing.Albert Einstein said, “Tomorrow’s problems will not be solved with today’s solutions.”It doesn’t take Einstein for us to realize that your communications process can always be improved.So where do we start?One way is for management to complete a comprehensive analysis of the flow of all data, codify the system and then train the employees to use it.This will work but it is rarely cost effective and rarely sustains long-term implementation.It also tends to “etch in granite” systems that as we have already determined must constantly change.Comprehensive “fixes” that truly address the cause of the problem rather than the “symptom” of the problem as a rule are the better way to go, but in the case of communications, so much of your corporate culture must be addressed that a complete change becomes impossible.Rather, start by fixing the squeaky wheel.
First assume that almost every issue in your company is a “communications” issue.When a mistake is made, a frustration is expressed, or an excuse for non-performance is offered, start with the responsible person.
- Identify the problem in objective terms without placing blame.
- Cause the responsible person to “buy-in” by making them commit to what could have happened that would have allowed them to produce the correct result.
- Examine if this is the proper person to be responsible for the decision and if the employee in that position is the proper person.
- Work back down the communications hierarchy from the problem—what knowledge did the person have?What information was generated?Was the information produced in compliance with the four criteria for information?What data was the information based upon?How was it collected?
- The responsible person should then be “teamed” with the “lower level” persons required to feed the “higher level” person the knowledge that they have agreed is required.Together they produce the solution (facilitated and if necessary, mediated, by you).
- Once the solution is identified, it must be codified.The codification must be a writing that is distributed and maintained in the operations manual for each position.
- For the change to really become implemented it must not only be written, it must be reinforced by the leader within the first week, and reinforced by the leader again in the next two to four weeks.
- Depending upon the benefit the company derives from the change, incentives can be created to execute the reinforcement.
Does this seem like a bother?Weigh this course of action against the problem being repeated.Our office has a saying, “smart men make mistakes; dumb men repeat them.”Reprimanding a person for a “poor decision” doesn’t solve the problem—it generally creates another one.Fixing the root of the problem takes more effort in the short term, but it actually saves effort in the long term.Your job as the owner is leadership.Leadership is having a plan and then getting people to produce the results by performing their part of the plan.If we don’t have an effective communications system we are setting them up for failure and in so doing, limiting the ability of our company to succeed.Success is the accomplishment of your plan; failure is not accomplishing your plan.
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The Fremont Group