Bob Patchett looks at getting the best out of meetings.

Meetings are a nightmare — unless they are conducted by a good chairperson. Even then, unless the chairperson is well prepared and disciplined, a meeting can become a long and pleasant respite from work — especially after a good lunch.

But is a meeting really necessary? People sometimes spend several hours travelling for a one-hour meeting and maybe book a night in a hotel, and even an internal meeting can be time-consuming to organise. So, is there not a better medium for group discussion?

The internet has changed so many aspects of the way we do business. Email has become popular because it is less demanding than the telephone, otherwise the way we interface with each other has changed little in a century. Teenagers spend considerable time communicating with friends on their screens rather than meeting them in person, so have they found more effective media? Meetings require considerable time to arrange, attend and conduct. They should go, or be managed better.

Some alternatives

Take a good look at the wide variety of media used for communication on the internet. Much of it allows for group discussions, video conferencing, presentations, all at one’s desk without even walking down the corridor to a meeting room. And could not more time be saved by issuing reports by email and inviting comments that are likely to be more focused and concise than ramblings in a meeting? A valuable exercise might be to ask a few teenagers or recent graduates — experts at communication — to demonstrate the media they use to keep in touch with their friends.

Setting up meetings

If, however, there appears to be no better way of dealing with a current issue than holding a meeting, how should it be managed to greatest effect? Here you should ask yourself three preliminary questions.

  1. What needs to be done?

  2. Why?

  3. How will I know that I have achieved it?

If an answer to the latter question is difficult, then you need to examine carefully the first question, otherwise you will have difficulty focusing on the aim of the meeting.

Having established a clear purpose, your next question is to determine who needs to attend, recognising that the smaller the number the shorter the meeting is likely to last. Ordinarily you should invite only people who can make a contribution. Those who need to know what is reported or discussed could be informed by social media after the meeting, either by emailing minutes or by broadcasting a summary report. This could inform individuals not only what was decided but also what they are required to do. Initially this may cause resentment if people are told what they need to do when they have had no say in the decision, but this is little different from getting a written instruction from a senior executive. Also, be wary of inviting someone purely for political reasons or to ensure representation of all functions of the operation. If they are unlikely to make a meaningful contribution, save their time and yours. A copy of the minutes should suffice.

Make use of situation reports

Frequently, meetings are held to discuss what has happened or what is proposed. Unless either of these can be summed up in no more than two sentences, demand that written reports be submitted to the chairperson or secretary at least 48 hours in advance for appropriate circulation so that people come to the meeting fully briefed; make clear that failure to study and think about reports beforehand is a serious breach of management behaviour.

The role of the chairperson

The key to a useful and successful meeting lies in the hands of the chairperson. They must exercise good people management skills which, in the case of meetings, means being friendly but brusque. As all present are there because they have something to contribute, they should be allowed to do so without unnecessary interruption. Beware of the concept of an “informal meeting”. That is something you have after work down the pub. A work meeting is a meeting in which all present work, and should be formal in that nobody other than the chairperson interrupts, everyone listens and thinks, and speaks only to make relevant points. The chairperson determines who speaks and when, and must come down hard on anyone who fails to behave in these ways. Individuals who ramble should be told by the chairperson to be briefer and more precise. A skill of a good chairperson is making sure that everyone with something useful to say is enabled to say it, that sensible and helpful questions are allowed and properly answered, that good order is kept and — perhaps the greatest skill — recognising when everything useful has been discussed adequately and the meeting therefore should be concluded.

A perfectly sound attitude for the chairperson to take is that, although the meeting is important, it nevertheless represents an unwelcome interruption to his or her work schedule. The purpose of the meeting might usefully be printed out and put in front of the chairperson, who can then keep checking that the meeting is at all times moving towards it and, if it is not, taking remedial action. Remembering the answer to the question “how will I know that we have achieved it?” will enable the chairperson to recognise that the business is now complete.

Ending the meeting

Ensure that you have appointed a good secretary, ideally one who attends purely to take notes of the salient points. You may need to train someone to do this in your way. Having established that all has been said, sum up. If the meeting was geared towards consensus, for example a plan of action, ensure that everyone agrees or, if it was to enable you to make a decision, announce that decision or the arguments that you will now weigh up. You may choose to have the secretary read out the points that will be minuted, including the action that people need to take and the time frame for doing so.

And the minutes?

Minutes should not be excessively long. Aim for 500 words maximum. They should include details of the decisions taken and, if considered useful, a summary of the reasons for them. They should highlight action that people need to take and timescales. Copies should be transmitted to attendees, to other people who have to take action or may be influenced by the decisions, and to anyone who needs to know what is happening, though keep that last group small to minimise flooding people with information they do not really need for their work.

Conclusion

If a meeting really is the best way to deal with an issue, ensure that it is managed skilfully so as to achieve a desired result in a short time. It is not a good way to spend a couple of hours. It is not a social gathering for biscuits and a chat about the match. It is an important management tool that requires skilful handling. The person who handles meetings well will be demonstrating an ability to manage complex operations — a good career development opportunity.

Last reviewed 10 October 2018