Article: Dr. Kevin Polk


The Small Business Library

April 28, 2000

Got Meeting Madness?
Here's Six Things for Running a Successful Meeting

Meetings take up a huge chunk of the world's workweek. Studies show that some executives spend up to 25 hours a week in meetings. Managers often spend 15 to 20 hours. That adds up to a huge amount of time and money. With that big of investment it makes good sense to run the best meetings possible.

Here are six things you can do to run a great meeting.

  1. Keep track of exactly what you want to have the meeting for.
    If it's not clear to you, it won't be clear to your employees. Unless they just enjoy getting together you will end up with disgruntled employees who will be thinking they could do something better with their time.

    Lots of people use a written agenda as a way of organizing a meeting. While agendas are great, they don't necessarily tell everyone why they are in the meeting. You may know of meetings that have gone on for years. Each meeting has a written agenda and people still don't know why they have to come to the meeting.

    So don't rely on a written agenda to tell you and the people in the meeting what the meeting is for. You need to know deep down why the meeting is useful. Then you need to communicate that to the people in the meeting. Use a written agenda and then go beyond it.

  2. Keep track of announcements and problem solving.
    Sometimes meetings are held to announce news. You feel the need to make the announcement in person instead of sending a memo or email to the group. There is, however, a huge potential pitfall in using meetings to make announcements. That pitfall is the other big reason meetings are held: problem solving.

    Over the past thirty years the "team" approach to management has become popular. More and more employees expect to be made a part of management problem solving. That can be a very good thing, but it can cause a problem when it comes to announcements. The problem is that the employee assumes the announcement is the beginning of a problem solving process. This will especially be true if one or more employees don't like the news. They will want to put their two cents worth in and try to change the news. This can lead to a disaster of a meeting.

    The solution is to clearly know when you are making an announcement and that's it, no discussion, and when you are opening up a discussion. Be honest with yourself. If you've made a decision and are announcing it, do so. If you want to start a problem solving discussion, do that. Don't try to mix them. Put your announcements in writing first.

    You may discover that you would rather send a memo or an email announcing the news. That will keep you out of the group problem solving assumption. Writing it down will also let you reflect on the announcement. Maybe you do need to open it up for discussion before you make it an edict. If you decide to make the announcement having it written will help you make an assertive statement, reducing the chance of people trying to jump into discussion mode.

  3. Know the basic components of problem solving.
    Most meetings are held for group problem solving. The agenda item is brought up, then there is discussion, and then an action step is decided upon. Getting from discussion to action step can turn into a huge problem itself. That's because there is a lot more to problem solving than just "discussion."

    According to Goldfried and Davidson (1977) there are five components to problem solving.

    1. Problem Solving Orientation:
      In a meeting this means that everyone should have the attitude that the problem can (or should) be solved. Lots and lots of meetings fall apart on this very point. There are people in the meeting that have no interest in solving the problem at hand. Of course this is a huge problem and the meeting should not proceed until everyone has a problem-solving attitude.

    2. Defining the problem.
      In order for a problem to be solved in a meeting everyone needs to have a similar understanding of what the problem is. When a problem first comes up this is simply not the case. Each person will have his or her own idea of the problem. That's a good thing for problem solving, but those ideas need to be expressed in the open.

      The simplest way to do this is for you to ask who, what, when, where, how, and why questions about the problem. Have everyone give his or her answer. Do this until you are sure that everyone has a good picture of the problem. If you do this step well the rest of problem solving is much, much easier.

    3. Generating Solutions (Brainstorming).
      The term brainstorming is overused these days. It's a specific exercise in generating possible solutions. No discussion of the pros or cons takes place during brainstorming. All solutions that are said get recorded. Brainstorming is that simple.

      Here's what often happens, however: After a brief "discussion" of a problem someone throws out a possible solution. Then the meeting degenerates into a long discussion of the cons and pros of that single idea. Then the meeting ends with no solution and lots of hard feelings. Avoid that. Do true brainstorming.

    4. Choosing a solution.
      Now the group discusses the pros and cons. They decide on a solution.

    5. Do and Review.
      This is the action step. The solution gets tried and monitored. Usually a report is given in a later meeting about how the solution worked.

  4. Know that people are people.
    They love to be paid attention to and to pay attention to others if they're interesting. People will tell "war stories" and personal things to entertain each other. This is good "bonding" and is needed. Because they are people they will also get into power struggles and try and drive their ideas through over others. These power struggles can escalate into an ugly mess. Bonding and power struggles are part of human nature. You need some of both in meetings to keep things interesting. Just keep them from getting out of hand.

  5. Keep track of the process of the meeting.
    This is how you can really shine as a meeting facilitator. The points discussed so far are about the content of a meeting. When you know these points well you will be able to track the flow of the meeting. Meetings routinely get off track. Maybe there is something more interesting to discuss; maybe someone has a personal agenda they want to put forth.

    Whatever the reason it's your job to quickly notice in what direction the meeting has gone. That way you can choose where to steer the meeting next. This can be fairly simple if you know the first four points so well they automatically pop in your thoughts during the meeting.

    Until you make them automatic it's a good idea to have a tracking sheet for conducting meetings. This is not a meeting agenda. Those are for the concrete things to be done in the meeting. The tracking sheet allows you to glance down and check off what communication process is happening at that time.

    Here are the elements of a tracking sheet:

    • Announcements (Not just your announcements, but announcement made at any time by meeting members. These often get lobbed into meetings. Notice when they happen.
    • Problem Solving Components a, b, c, d, and e from above.
    • Bonding stuff (This goes on to some extent in all meetings. Joke telling, telling personal stories, and griping about things are all part of it. Monitor these things to make sure they happen, but don't dominate the meeting.)
    • Power Struggle stuff (Watch for differences of opinion escalating into aggressive power struggles and deescalate them. Disagreements are fine, but aggressive behaviors in the form of verbal attacks of any kind need to be stopped immediately. If you don't stop them the people in the meeting will lose confidence in your ability to protect them form harm. That's part of your job.)

  6. Keep track of how you run meetings.
    Running a meeting is much like a performance. That means you want to review how the performance went. You can do this alone or with others. Look at the five points described above, then ask yourself how you did on each one.

    Don't be hard on yourself; just pay attention to areas where you might improve. Since meetings are a part of your life, you will have plenty of chances to improve.

Dr. Polk is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who teaches life skills on the Internet. Get his FREE course in Creative Problem Solving at timedoctor.com or send any email.