Making Meetings Meaningful is possible, desirable, and should be the goal of every leader. Really? Meaningful meetings? Now, that's an oxymoron.
I estimate at least half of all meetings I attended at work, church, and other ministry-related organizations were unnecessary. We could have achieved the same results differently without affecting relational aspects, or the final goal. Certainly, I could have used the time in those meetings for other purposes. To be sure, this applies to others attending these meetings, too. Wasteful meetings are expensive and bad for morale, and for productivity.
We need to address this epidemic of meaningless meetings. Here are a few ingredients for meaningful meetings. This is not an exhaustive analysis. However, when followed the chances of positive outcomes will improve significantly. Many face-to-face meetings are needed primarily because of the need for human interaction. However, we should question whether those meetings you are planning are essential. Further, where feasible, question those that other arrange, and suggest appropriate alternatives.
With this caveat, each meeting needs a few basics to help attendees be effective at the meeting and following, and to help the productivity of the group overall:
The convener runs the meeting unless someone else is chosen to chair it.
Not all meetings have the same purpose. However, each meaning ful meting must have a purpose. There are at least three meeting categories: information sharing, accountability/reporting, and problem solving. Why would anyone call a meeting without an explicit purpose? Often, the convener, and maybe a couple other folks, know the purpose, but may not articulate it to others in advance. Sometimes, people call meetings out of habit. They hold weekly ... so and so meetigs, because that's been happening for years. And nobody asks, why.
During seven years working in Asia, I noticed two major differences between business meetings there and in the West. Though most of these meetings we meaningful, they were lengthy.
First, often in Asia they defined precisely in advance, the specific purpose of problem solving meetings, and invited persons who were usually well prepared. Second, the group was attentive when each person spoke, no doubt, because of respect for elders and hierarchy. Consequently, participants listened to each other and generally built on each other's contributions. If you interested in making meetings meaningful, you must have an explicit and understood purpose for each.
In the West, sometimes you don't know the aim of the meeting until after it starts. Many times the invitation is not explicit on its nature: problem solving, information sharing, or accountability reporting. Further, in meetings, we seem to compete for airtime; not keen to listen to another's point with a totally open mind, but always prepared to interrupt another in mid-sentence to add our views, even if it does not necessarily build on the speaker's point.
In the Japanese system, we spent much time defining and agreeing the identified purpose at the start of the meeting, before concentrating on solving the problem. Normally, each person did not compete for airtime. I found this system weak in information sharing and accountability meetings. Indeed, I was on the board of a couple Japanese companies, and was continually amazed at the paucity of data presented to shareholders and the brevity of shareholders meetings.
Take time to define precisely why you need to meet and who needs to be there. Treat each contribution respectully and honestly.
The ideal vehicle to define the meeting's purpose is a carefully crafted agenda, with a starting and ending time. It should be comprehensive and indicate clearly items for discussion: ideally, with a starting and ending time for each. Often we spend time on the first few items and rush the remaining, irrespective of their importance.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have with meetings is time keeping and etiquette:
Often the convener/chair does not focus on the process and we get off topic; a few persons monopolize discussions, and we end without achieving the main goal. Somehow, some executives believe being late demonstrates their importance.
In seven years presenting Managing God's Money Seminars in Canada and internationally, to date, we have not started or finished late: When an organization invites me to present a seminar, I ask them to covenant with God to do at least two things: (1) start on time, and (2) work unto the Lord to plan and implement the seminar. I covenant to end on time and to work unto the Lord - Colossians 3:23.
I know, sometimes it's difficult to be on time because of extraneous circumstances. Nevertheless, I think each person should reflect on the cascading effect of his tardiness, and consciously work to be punctual to show respect for others. We will become less stressful and be able to smell more roses.
Meaningful meetings have attendees with purpose. Attendees for information sharing and accountability meetings are obvious: those who need to receive and those who present and explain information. Generally, these meetings have many participants. For problem-solving meetings however, the size will vary depending on the nature of the problem. The convener must ensure each person explains his view without interruption and challenge: the emphasis must be on clarifying views before others discuss and contest them. Here are some procedural matters to help us stay focused during a problem-solving meeting.