Frédéric Gillant, vice-president and managing director, Asia-Pacific of ShoreTel, shares five mistakes leaders tend to make when holding meetings and how they can be avoided.
One of the biggest complaints we hear about meetings is that they waste people’s time. Indeed, according to a study by Harvard Business Review, respondents felt that between 25% to 50% of the time spent in meetings is put to no good use. Given that many people today feel as if they’re always trying to cram too much activity into too little time, wouldn’t it be nice to recover some of those lost hours?
You can if you identify just where all that time is going and understand how to use what you’ve got wisely. Here are five of the biggest challenges we face in having productive discussions.
1. No agenda
Meetings without an agenda are like road trips without a map. You might know where you want to end up, but you have no idea of how you’re going to get there. The solution is both simple and obvious: Lay out an agenda and distribute it ahead of time. Be sure it includes who is responsible for each segment, and assign each a set amount of time.
Creating the agenda is only half the battle, however. You also have to enforce it. If someone moves off-topic, step in and bring them back. If it looks like a presenter is going to use more time than they’ve been allotted, ask them to wrap up their comments before they hit their limit.
If something seems important enough, ask whether there’s a consensus for dropping another agenda item in order to give the current discussion more time.
2. Scheduling too much time
NPR says one reason meetings drag on is because of “Parkinson’s Law,” which states that tasks take as much time as you plan for them. So, if you schedule two hours for a conversation, two hours is how long you’re going to talk. On the other hand, take the same agenda, give it half as much time, and you’ll accomplish just as much.
So be stingy. If your gut says a meeting needs two hours, schedule it for 90 minutes and see what happens.
Meetings without an agenda are like road trips without a map. You might know where you want to end up, but you have no idea of how you’re going to get there.
3. Too many distractions
People have shorter attention spans (8 seconds) than goldfish (9 seconds). That wasn’t always the case, but a study by Microsoft found that our continual use of smartphones, tablets and the like have trained us to expect more mental stimulation in less time. When we’re bored with what we see on one Web page for example, we move to another Web page. Or, when we’re bored with what someone’s saying in a meeting, we pull out our smartphone to check email.
To keep that from happening, ban smartphones, tablets and laptops from your meetings. They make it too easy for people to satisfy the need of their wandering attention by surfing the Web, reading email, or doing work that has nothing to do with the discussion right in front of them. To discourage multi-tasking by remote participants, take advantage of the video conferencing tools, making participants feel more visible, as well as increasing their sense of “presence.”
4. Rambling and sidebars
Some people have a lot to say, so they talk. And talk. And talk some more. Along the way, they may make valid points, but their volubility chews up time and prevents others from giving their own input. As the meeting’s leader, it’s up to you to politely cut off the talker. Try interrupting then with a thank you for their excellent points, then call on someone else to speak. That way, you’ll keep things moving along.
Then there are people who have their own conversation, outside of the general discussion. Their whispering is distracting and can derail your agenda if their talk grows to include others. Ask them to save their side conversation for another time, or to share their thoughts if what they’re discussing is on-topic.
5. Ill-timed objections
Sometimes people may object to the very premise of the meeting, but not say anything about it until well into the conversation. For example, your agenda may cover the launch schedule for a new product, but one participant believes the entire marketing angle is off-target. If they inject that into the conversation 30 minutes after the meeting starts, it may be nearly impossible to get things back on-track.
To address this possibility, ask people early on whether they have any overriding issues with the topic at hand. If they do, you can set up a separate discussion to deal with them.
As maligned as they are, meetings are often necessary, but they don’t need to be painful. Prepare yours in advance and be ready to actively manage the discussion, and you’ll accomplish your goals with a minimum of pain.
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