Hey! Why’d you cut me off?

17 03 2010

Cheating the Meeting Reaper : Avoiding Death by Meeting IV

Let’s see…right place, right time, right people, few topics, timed agenda…what else do you need for a good meeting?

Aha! Control! Yes, all the good intentions in the world aren’t going to keep your meeting on track. This is the job of [pause for effect] Super Leader!

All kidding aside, the meeting chair is responsible for keeping the meeting on track. In a board meeting, that’s the President. In a committee meeting, it’s the committee Chair. Make no mistake, though, someone has to be in charge, and that someone has to make it known that he or she is in charge.

Start on time. This simple step sets the stage, and lets the attendees know you mean business. Don’t wait until everyone gets here. It’s discourteous to the people who came on time, and encourages everyone to dawdle. A corollary to this rule is: Don’t go over what’s already been covered in order to bring people up to speed. It takes up time, and rewards the dawdlers. Eventually, attendees will learn that they have to get to the meetings on time.

Assign a Queue Keeper. When discussions ensue, this is a way to keep order among the many people who want to speak. We all know committee members who dominate discussions. Those who rarely speak up may find their voices trampled by the dominant speakers. The solution is to have a designated Queue Keeper. Each attendee who wants to speak raises a hand and the QK puts his/her name on the list; each person has an opportunity to speak in turn. This method serves several purposes.

  1. Each person is assured of an opportunity to speak.
  2. People no longer have to spend their attention and energy getting noticed. Instead, they spend their time actually listening to the other participants in the discussion.
  3. Because there is time between wanting to speak and when that thought will be spoken, people jot down their ideas so they won’t forget them. This means that when they do speak their minds, their contributions are more concise and precise.

Using a Queue Keeper may feel awkward the first few times, but the benefits will soon be apparent to everyone.

Stick to the timed agenda. Periodically reference the agenda and the time, so attendees are also aware of its status. If you’ve slightly misjudged the amount of time it will take to get through a subject, there may be some slack elsewhere. But if a topic starts getting very lengthy, act appropriately. There are four main possibilities.

  1. The subject warrants more serious discussion than originally thought. In that case, table the topic until the next meeting, when you can give it the attention it deserves.
  2. Attendees are repeating previously made points. Here, the Chair has to stop the discussion by saying, “does anyone have anything new to contribute? If not, will someone call the question?”
  3. There isn’t enough information to really come to a conclusion, and the discussion is spinning its wheels. In this case, the Chair has to stop the discussion and put it back to committee – either the originating committee or an ad hoc committee for this particular topic.
  4. Rarely, you may have a fourth situation. You may encounter an urgent question for which a lot of discussion still needs to take place.  In this case, you can decide to drop a later agenda item, or conclude that a specially called meeting for this particular topic should happen very soon.

The important thing to keep in mind is to give each agenda item the appropriate attention. Big items should be given enough time for productive, substantive thought and discussion.

Of course, in the case of committee reports, an agenda item may take too much time because the speaker is running over. Then the Chair should politely, but firmly, ask how much longer this will be since “we have many items to cover,” and request only the highlights.  As a committee report, the information should have been sent out in advance anyway, and the speaker should only be hitting highlights unless a vote is needed.

Finally, end on time! Meeting management is not rocket science, but it does take control. It means the Chair should be firm and consistent. There may be an occasional grumble the first few times you stop a discussion. But when your meeting ends in 90 minutes, instead of 2 and a half hours, your attendees will thank you!

Only one more topic left in Cheating the Meeting Reaper! Follow-up. Stay tuned.

My colleague, Susan Sherk, and I are presenting more detail on meeting management at the International Association of Fundraising Professionals meeting in Baltimore, on April 12, 2010. Join us, and then meet us at the Bloom Metz Consulting exhibit!

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