Smart Skills: Meetings
eBook - ePub

Smart Skills: Meetings

Patrick Forsyth

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  1. 144 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Smart Skills: Meetings

Patrick Forsyth

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About This Book

Part of the Smart Skills Series

Meetings offers all you need to know to get the most out of meetings - from setting meetings up, leading them, to how to make the most out of them once the meeting is over. A must for any employee, manager, freelancer of business owner. The book offers proven, practical advice on: setting objectives and creating practical agendas; deciding who should attend and when and where; effective chairing and effective participation - the communications skills necessary - listening, observing, questioning and getting your points across; dealing with problems; follow up after the meeting to prompt suitable action.

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Chapter 1

BEFORE MEETINGS START: setting them up for success

Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything JK Galbraith

If a meeting is to be truly successful then its purpose and content have to be thought through first. The “I think we’re all here, what shall we deal with first?” school of meeting conduct already referred to is unlikely to lead to success. Making meetings work starts before the meeting does – sometimes long before.


There may be other ways of dealing with the business in hand. So the first question is whether a meeting needs to be called or, if it is not your meeting, needs to be attended. Consider yours first.

Your meetings

The first thing, as with so much in office life, is to ask questions. Never just open your mouth and say, “We had better schedule a meeting.” Pause and think. Ask yourself: is it a matter for debate or consultation? Or can a decision be made without either of those? Can any information that will be disseminated at the meeting be circulated in any other way? If a brief conversation is all that is necessary, might it not be enough to have a word on the telephone, in the corridor, or over a working lunch?
Note: Although conference calls have an awkwardness (because they are voice only) the technology is improving all the time, including systems based on video and they are increasingly providing a viable option in some situations, especially when people are geographically spread. As soon as you ask such questions, an alternative can often present itself, and that may well be one less time-consuming than a meeting.
Remember that such decisions affect not only your own time. Six people meeting for an hour represent six hours’ work time (plus preparing, getting there and… but you get the point); and this is the way to think about it. Of course, the more people you invite to a meeting the more this situation multiplies; and large meetings tend, by their very nature, to last longer than smaller ones.

Other people’s meetings

What about meetings called by others? Although there will always be some you have to attend, the principle of “think first” still applies. You may find there are some meetings that you attend for the wrong reasons. For example, it is very easy to find you are really going only to keep in touch or “just in case something important crops up”. If that is the case, then maybe it will be sufficient just to read the minutes or check with someone who did attend for a two-minute update. Even if, for those that manage other people, you feel it is important for your department to be represented you can always delegate someone else to attend and report back to you.
There may be aspects of a forthcoming meeting that you would enjoy or find interesting, topics on which your contribution would allow you to shine, but still it may not be a priority to attend. There is an old story, which perhaps illustrates the attitude to take, about a training manger who scheduled a workshop on delegation skills and sent round a note indicating that certain managers were expected to attend. One promptly replied he would not do so … but that he would send his assistant!
In any case, whatever the meeting is about, make sure it is essential, that your presence is useful and that there is no alternative to meeting; and then read the rest of this chapter before you finalise matters and the meeting gets underway!

Regular meetings

If it is important to consider whether any one meeting is necessary then it is doubly important to consider carefully before getting locked into a series of regular meetings. There are all too many weekly or monthly meetings that continue to be held for no better reason than because they have become a habit. If this is the case, then few of them are likely to be useful. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest banning labelling any meeting in a way that is prefixed by a word such as “weekly”; certainly think long and hard before you allow such a tag to be brought into use.
Admittedly, meetings scheduled in advance are usually important. Often it also makes sense to have them on a regular or semi-regular basis. But it may be better to think in terms of, say, ten a year rather than one a month: regularity may be varied to match such things as the seasonal pattern in a business (or just the calendar year), with meetings being set closer or further apart at certain times of the year. Get over the problem of gathering busy people together by scheduling ahead by all means, but be warned: this is an area from which stem many unproductive meetings and much waste of time.
One of a regular series of meetings can always be cancelled, of course, although I have often heard managers say something like “Let’s let it stand and see what people have to say”. In this (probably well intentioned) way a manager can easily earn a reputation for running useless meetings. It is an area where a more ruthless attitude really is likely to be best.
But if a meeting is to happen, what will make it effective?


Every meeting needs an agenda. In most cases this needs to be in writing and be circulated to everyone involved in advance (and that doesn’t mean ten minutes before the start time!). This is surely basic, though in practice it is often not done. A clear agenda can shape and control a meeting in all sorts of ways. It is ultimately the responsibility of the Chair to compile the agenda, though others may have a role in this too. Not least it should:
• Specify the formalities (do you need to note any apologies for absence, for example?).
• Pick up and link points from any previous meetings to ensure continuity.
• Help individuals to prepare themselves.
• Give people an opportunity to make additional agenda suggestions (something made possible by advance circulation).
• Specify who will lead or contribute to each item.
• Order the items for discussion to review; this is something that may need to represent the logical order of the topics, the difficulty they pose (and perhaps the time they occupy), and the participants’ convenience (maybe someone must leave early and you want something dealt with before this happens).
• Reflect any “hidden” agendas, for example with a controversial issue being placed to minimise discussion (just before lunch, say); or indeed to just avoid this sort of thing happening
• Deal with administrative matters such as where and when the meeting will be held and, if it is going to be lengthy, when any breaks or refreshments will come.
Sequence is also important. Selecting a good order in which to go through things can make all the difference. For example, is a particular item:
• Best addressed early on, to get it out of the way while people are fresh?
• Best placed to provide a link with other items (horses first, carts second)?
• The most dependent on preparation?
• Interesting or important to everyone attending, or to just a few?
• In danger of taking too much time and overshadowing other things, or does it have any characteristics – being awkward, unpopular, contentious, or easy, straightforward, quick – that makes it suit a particular placing?
Furthermore, any agenda must be realistic, so whoever is organizing it should ask themselves the following questions:
• Will all the items on the agenda fit within the time available?
• Is there sufficient lead time before it is scheduled for notification and preparation?
• Will one major item put time and attention for the rest of the meeting in jeopardy?
• Are items matched to participants? (Are the right people going to be there – or not?)
• Is the style of the meeting right? (Training or persuasion may take longer than information giving, for example).
It is too late to do anything about it if you find out only after your meeting is underway that the way it was set up is preventing it from operating effectively.
The overall look and balance of an agenda should be checked to make sure that the meeting is not attempting too much in the time available. If patience runs out things will end up taking longer, or will not have justice done to them. Above all, the agenda should reflect the objectives of the meeting. (Indeed, a fully stated agenda may sometimes address why something is being tabled as well as the plain fact that it is). Before going any further, therefore, we turn to objectives.
Why are we meeting?
Sometimes meetings do not become ineffective because of how they proceed: rather they are doomed from the start because they do not have clear, specific objectives. You must not meet in order to:
• Start the planning process.
• Discuss cost savings.
• Review training needs.
• Improve administration.
Set clear, explicit objectives, what are often referred to as SMART – see box). Avoid vaguely worded items such as “discuss reducing expenditure”; say instead that you want “to decide how to reduce the advertising budget by 10 percent over the next six month”. If clear objectives are set it will help in a number of ways:
• People will understand why the meeting is taking place.
• They will be better able, and perhaps more inclined, to prepare.
• The discussion will be more focused.
• The proceedings will be easier to control.
The net result is that the meeting is more likely to achieve its aims.

Making objectives useful

Objectives should be SMART. This well-known mnemonic stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed, thus any objectives should be:
Specific – expressed clearly and precisely.
Measurable – it must be possible to tell later if you have achieved something (the difference between saying costs should “be reviewed” and “costs must be reduced by 10% by the end of the financial year”).
Achievable – objectives must not be so difficult as to be pie in the sky; otherwise the plan that goes with them similarly becomes invalid and of no practical help in taking things forward.
Realistic – it must fit with the broad picture and be what you want; it might be a valid objective to aim for something possible but not ideal (maybe those costs can be reduced by axing something) but this will not be helpful (if, say, customer service levels and thus revenue declines). Action is needed with more ambitious objectives in mind.
Timed – this is important; objectives are not to be achieved “eventually” but by a particular moment: when do you aim for something to be done, this year, next year or when?

Time and t...

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