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Jan 21, 2007

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Effective and Efficient Meetings

Belling the Cat, Aesop's Fables

Meetings are such a dread. Haven't you attended meetings
which are totally unproductive, time-wasting, and boring? Or
are you guilty of chairing such meetings? In one of my places
of work, I had meetings almost round the clock. “Remember
that time is money.” If you agree with Benjamin Franklin, time
is a huge cost to the company. While I won't say they were all
unproductive, I would think that meeting times could have
been halved if the meetings had been better conducted. You
can't do away with meetings, be it in person, or through a
teleconference or internet relay chat. What you can do,
however, is to conduct them effectively and efficiently, and
make them engaging and purposeful.


Belling the Cat

Belling the Cat

Effective and Efficient Meetings

[Illus by Milo Winter]

The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free
themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find
some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have
time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they
lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared
stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good
enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:

“I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be
successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat's neck.
When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that
our enemy is coming.”

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of
such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their
good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

“I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let
me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”

The Mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the
old Mouse said:

“It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”


It is much easier said than done.
Let those who propose be willing to perform.
It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite
a different matter to do it.

Kidding me:

You may have read the joke that has been freely circulated on
the internet regarding the organs of the body having a meeting
to decide who's the boss. I wrote a poem out of it, and put it in
a nice frame. You may show this to your boss the next time he
is behaving like a 'you-know-what'. If you need a larger or
clearer copy, let me know, and I could send it to you.

Who is the Boss poem

Quotable Quotes:

“A conference is a gathering of important people who,
singly, can do nothing but together can decide that
nothing can be done.” ... Fred Allen

“Outside of traffic, there is nothing that has held this
country back as much as committees.” ... Will Rogers

“The length of a meeting rises with the number of
people present and the productiveness of a meeting
falls with the square of the number of people present.”
... Eileen Shanahan

“The executives of corporate America spend 70 to 80
percent of their time in meetings ... are 70 to 80 percent
posturing and leveling.” ... Nicholas Negroponte

“While we're talking, envious time is fleeing; seize the
day, put no trust in the future.” ... Horace

“He who would make serious use of his life ... must
schedule his time as though he were about to die.”
... Emile Littre

[browse collection of quotes and quotations]

Lessons in life:

Through the years, I have learned a trick or two in hosting
effective and efficient meetings:-

1. Call for a meeting only when you have something important
to discuss or share. Focus on one or two key issues, leaving some
time for ancillary reports and housekeeping matters. Quite often,
we may have reserved our senior members' time by fixing
meetings on a certain day, at the same time, every week. The
same rule applies, i.e., if there is nothing important to raise,
cancel the meeting. Some decisions can be confirmed via an
exchange of emails. Even board resolutions can be circulated
and endorsed, without requiring the directors to meet.

2. Invite as few people as possible to the meeting. Managers
like to round up every member in the team to hear what they
have to discuss. If you have a sales department of say, 50
members, will you want to waste 2 hours of all their time, which
works out to 100 man-hours? Will it not be better to meet up
with their section heads, or team leaders, and have them
disseminate the information after the meeting?

3. When fixing a time for a meeting, I usually go by a rule of
thumb – meetings requiring brainstorming, problem solving,
and decision-making on critical issues are to be held in the
morning; every other type of meetings may be held in the
afternoon. My belief is that our brains are most active in the
morning. We tend to feel sleepy after lunch (there is a
number of scientific explanations for this), and packing an
afternoon meeting with heavy agenda is surely going to put
your members to sleep.

4. The Boy Scout's motto, “Be Prepared” applies here. Plan
for the meeting, and get all participants thoroughly prepared.
This would include stipulating a time duration for the meeting,
circulating the agenda (issues to be discussed) in advance,
identifying the speakers to address on particular issues, and
getting ready the equipment like projector, flipchart, and video
player. I read an interesting article by Guy Kawasaki, which he
termed the 10/20/30 Rule of Powerpoint. He opines that an
effective Powerpoint presentation should have 10 slides, last
no more than 20 minutes, and contain no font size smaller than
30 points. Before the meeting, try to address the problems at
the sideline, have dialogues with the individuals, and make some
minor decisions. Ensure that the relevant participants do their
homework, research, and can provide the necessary information
at the meeting.

5. Remind everyone, including yourself, to turn up punctually.
Once the meeting commences, dispense with small talk; reserve
the chit chat for informal settings. Close the door, switch off all
cell-phones, pagers, and if possible, all computer notebooks.
Yes, notebooks. You won't want the people to be sending each
other love messages or emails during the meeting. The
secretaries and receptionists should be briefed on the handling
of all phone calls, and are not to interrupt the meeting unless it
is a matter of life and death.

6. I like to start with the most important item on the agenda.
Reasons are two-fold. One, people are usually fresh, energetic,
and responsive at the start. Two, if there is insufficient time to
go through the rest of the agenda, you are assured that the
main purpose of your meeting has been covered.

7. The role of the chairperson of a meeting is that of a
facilitator, not a leader. If you are the sort who makes all the
decisions, you don't need a meeting to rubberstamp your
decisions; all you need to do is to inform the staff through
email about the decisions you have unilaterally made. People
like to feel empowered and important. They come to a meeting
precisely to share their wisdom and experience. Ask them for
suggestions, ideas, and proposals. Keep directing and re-
directing the questions. The tone need not be serious
throughout. I like to punctuate meetings with humor. A light-
hearted mood promotes discussion. Be in control. If someone
is sidetracked, steer him back. If someone is not attentive,
involve him in the discussion. The boss may share his views,
but should do that sparingly, and in any event only after a lively
debate. If the boss speaks too soon on the subject, the debate is
likely to end. In their mind, “God has spoken”.

8. For a meeting to be successful, it must encompass action
plans. If it is a project, carve out the various areas of
responsibility, determine who is to take charge of each portfolio,
set deadlines for submission of proposals (for programme,
budget, logistics, manpower, publicity, etc.). After the meeting,
be sure to monitor their progress. By doing so, you show your
concern and involvement, as well as ensure that they are on
target to meet their deadlines.

9. It is essential to keep a record of the key points raised at the
meeting. These meeting “minutes” should be brief, highlighting
the main arguments, the decisions made, and the plans for
action. They should be circulated to all the relevant staff,
including those who are not invited to the meeting but should
be aware of the matters covered.

From a managerial perspective, I see meetings as a great
platform to assess the staff. You can appreciate their thought
processes, knowledge depth, and also the true-self which will
usually surface in the midst of a heated debate.

Related Articles:

Leaders must be decisive
Control and Overcome Procrastination

Books worth reading:

For an interesting insight into the management philosophy
of Japanese companies in maintaining quality in their
products while eliminating wasted time and resources, a good
read is this The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles From
The World's Greatest Manufacturer. Among other things, you
will learn about their A3 process which helps to accomplish
effective meetings.

The Time Trap: The Classic Book on Time Management is
instructive on time management techniques. Hear what Alec
MacKenzie has to say on cutting down time wasters to achieve
personal and professional successes.

© Business Fables and Management Lessons

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