Planning more meaningful meetings.

Author:Larsen, Laura
 
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We've all been there: the meeting that didn't start on time, had no focus, and could have been resolved through an e-mail. It's not just you; research suggests that poorly planned meetings are a waste of time and resources. Employees consider between one quarter and three quarters of their time spent in meetings wasted. (1) On average, employees spend more than 20 hours a month in meetings, which might not include prep time. (2)

Imagine the time and money that could be saved and the improvement to employee morale that could be achieved by getting better value for meeting time. Employees might be able to gain the equivalent of roughly two more days of work time per person per month by eliminating wasted meeting time. Research also indicates that more productive and meaningful meetings can boost the quality of the decisions made there. (3)

The secret to a meaningful meeting has as much to do with the format and preparation as it does the content itself. In order to get the most out of meetings, be clear about what the meeting participants expect and create an environment where individuals have space to share insights and provide meaningful feedback.

Finance professionals often lead processes that involve many other people, so effective meetings are critically important to fulfilling deadlines. This article examines the elements of a meeting--its organization, the roles of participants, its ground rules, and action items--that come together to create an environment where staff members feel engaged in the decision-making process.

ORGANIZATION AND PLANNING

A successful meeting begins with a clear sense of purpose. Explicitly stated objectives ensure that the correct individuals are in attendance; having the right mix of people ensures that participants are invested and engaged in the topic at hand. It is sometimes appropriate to allow optional participation by giving participants the opportunity to self-select, based on their determination of what they will be able to contribute to the dialogue.

These steps can be accomplished by drafting a detailed agenda and sharing it with participants at least 24 hours before the meeting. Effective agendas include the following components:

* Objectives: Define why the meeting is being held.

* Logistics: State start and stop times, location, etc.

* Participants: Create a list of people, including whether or not their attendance is required or optional.

* Preparation: Inform participants about any tasks (including reading) that must be completed before the meeting.

* Agenda items: Outline how the meeting objective will be accomplished. Each agenda item should include an expected duration and indicate who will lead the discussion for that item.

When drafting the agenda, keep the meeting objectives foremost in your thoughts. The objectives should be organized logically, and the other meeting components should contribute to reaching the objectives. Also consider if a meeting is the best way to achieve those objectives--if you aren't able to define a clear and compelling objective for your meeting, it probably isn't necessary.

In the City of Madison, Wisconsin, for example, city officials applied this standard to a long-standing meeting between the mayor and staff that covered updates on ad hoc projects. As the steering committee set out to develop an agenda format, it became apparent the existing structure lacked a clear objective. Rather than continuing a meeting that lacked direction, staff worked to retool the format and ensure that meetings only take place when there is a clear objective (which the mayor now decides).

Staff in the City of Burnsville, Minnesota, had a similar experience when applying this approach to a monthly department head meeting. Participants often lacked a clear understanding of the meeting goal and felt overwhelmed by an overly ambitious agenda. The meetings were cut back to every other month, with an agreement that a meeting would be scheduled if substantive discussion were needed.

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