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Meeting of the Minds
Keep your conferences on-point and effective

by Danielle Burrows

Tune in to NBC’s The Office, and odds are high that you’ll witness fictitious Dunder-Mifflin manager Michael Scott holding a business meeting that doubles as an exercise in futility.

It’s a caricature of corporate leadership that works as a comedic device because most of us have, at one time or another, sat through a long-winded, irrelevant or otherwise ineffective meeting. “When the topic of business meetings arises, I inevitably hear personal horror stories, particularly of managers holding meetings for the sake of holding meetings,” says Robert S. Fleming, professor of management at Rowan University’s William G. Rohrer College of Business. “This is especially true among organizations that are performance-based, and where goals established for managers often include conducting a minimum number of meetings.”

Meetings might be inevitable, but they shouldn’t be intolerable. Common sense rules for increasing ease and productivity within meetings include starting and ending on time, keeping meetings to a reasonable length, and inviting only the necessary participants.

Beyond these guidelines, decrease your chances of resembling Michael Scott—and maybe even tap into your inner Jack Welch—by keep­ing these suggestions in mind before booking that conference room:

Distribute an agenda in advance
“Planning and conducting a meeting is like planning a road trip,” Fleming says. “Success begins with determining your desired destination and your route of travel.”

With that metaphor in mind, distribute a “roadmap” in the form of a meeting agenda to all attendees, both in advance of the meeting and again when they sit down. It should begin with a list of informational items that require little feedback or discussion. From there, outline areas where discussion is necessary, followed by topics that require a plan of action. Cap the agenda off with decisions and conclusions that need to be reached before the meeting is adjourned. Dr. Linda Ross, professor of management and entrepreneurship at Rohrer, points out that if your agenda starts and ends with informational items, rethink the need to gather in person at all. “If the attendees are merely consumers of information, consider sending out a memo instead,” she suggests.

Stay on track
“At times it’s necessary to deviate from the planned route of travel,” Fleming says, keeping with the metaphor of a road trip. “But these detours and ‘side trips’ should be minimized, and can be anticipated through proper meeting planning.”

Another pothole on the road to effective meetings? Small talk.

Thomas J. Doll, chief operating officer of Cherry Hill-based Subaru of America, notices that “when an hour-long meeting starts with pleasantries and small talk, it’s usually not until 15 minutes in that we start discussing the topic at hand.“

Respect employee and company time by saving personal chatter for the water cooler. Some experts even suggest starting a meeting as attendees are still filing in, which sets a tone of efficiency and eliminates the urge to start off casually.

Set expectations for electronic interference
Given laptops’ and smart phones’ prevalence in most workplaces, it’s no surprise that employees are generally unclear on whether they should consult devices during meetings.

Whatever the managerial preference, it should be communicated at the top of the gathering. Asking attendees to mute cell phones is a fair request, Fleming says. Nonetheless, giving them freedom to casually check devices rarely impedes a meeting’s effectiveness, as long as attendees don’t respond to messages while the meeting is still in progress. “I remind attendees that, if a critical situation arises, all devices will go off, and we all will be alerted and can respond,” Fleming says.

He nonetheless advises managers against being overly aggressive.

“I was involved in an organization where there was such a problem with cell phones going off during meetings that the meeting leader went to a dollar store, bought colorful plastic baskets, placed one at each seat, and asked everyone at the meeting to turn off their device and place it in the basket,” Fleming recalls. “Afterward, he was sorry he’d done it. It alienated everybody from their communication source, which insulted and ultimately distracted them.”

Utilize technology when possible
While meetings may be necessary for your business, gathering in person may not be essential. “After Sept. 11, 2001, fears of flying forced corporations to recognize the value of electronic meetings,” Fleming says. He recommends cosidering electronic communications, like teleconferences or video conferences, even when all parties are local.

“When attendees travel to and from a meeting, even if it’s just a short drive, there’s a cost to be paid in terms of human capital and productivity,” Fleming notes.

Electronic meetings should be avoided for critical junctures in which non-verbal cues are vital. But for informational meetings, the time savings make it worthwhile.

Doll and his colleagues at Subaru have been forced to acclimate to electronic meetings: Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, is based in Japan.

“We meet face-to-face when significant decisions need to be made, and prefer in-person communication,” he says. “But we’ve grown accustomed to effectively doing business electronically on a day-to-day basis.”

After all, knowing when a meeting really is necessary just may be the most important meeting-management technique of all.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 1 (January, 2011).