meetings, meetings, meetings

At the Alumni Association, we have a meeting culture. Part of it is the work that we do, which is very collaborative – another thing is that as a matrix organization, we’re always putting together several people to put together a program. I’m not someone that dislikes meetings off the bat; I feel they are important and opportunities for people to provide input. In fact, when I was just starting out on the job, I jumped at the chance to sit in on meetings to see how projects come together, observe how co-workers work together and also have the opportunity to provide input when requested. It’s a great way to learn on the job and figure out how to work with people, especially when you are low on the totem pole. It’s a missed opportunity to zone out until it’s your turn to contribute.

Despite my seeming love for meetings, there’s nothing worse than sitting through a bad meeting. In a given week, I attend between 10-25 hours in meetings. That’s a lot. My tech friends find meetings stupid, especially with the number of people and hours sitting around the table. Although I disagree – since it’s part of the work that I do  – I’m hyperaware when things aren’t right. 99 % by Behance posted a great blog on how to Treat Your Meetings to a Little QA, so check it out.

Personally, this is what I’m looking for in a meeting to be productive:

  • A facilitator. Someone has to bring the agenda and keep the meeting on target.
  • A known goal or objective. People around the table need to know why they are there and what they are supposed to bring. Sending a blank meeting invite is pretty disrespectful of people’s time. If you can’t send out an agenda, at least convey the goal.
  • Realistic timing. Don’t schedule an hour unless you need it. 15 and 30 minute meetings are a great idea and attendees will appreciate that you considered their time. On the same note, if you’re debriefing a program with 10 people, make time for the 90 minutes or 2 hours this will take.
  • Attendees that pay attention. Don’t play on your phone or even allow it to vibrate on the table. It’s so frustrating when 10 people show up in a conference room and people don’t have the courtesy to give full attention and put their phone aside. Take notes when needed and listen to others. If you keep attending meetings and zoning out, maybe you shouldn’t be there in the first place.
  • Start and end on time. If 12 people are in a meeting and the group waits on 2 people that show up 10 minutes late, you’ve essentially wasted  2 hours of company time (12 people x 10 minutes). It sounds trivial, but it adds up.
  • Action items. My most effective meetings are ones where I’ve used Basecamp and after the meeting, send out a message to the whole group with brief action items and the person it’s assigned to. I don’t always do this, but it’s brilliant when it works.

Of course, the rules aren’t the same for all gatherings.

Behance suggests that someone takes notes. One of the best changes in our department this year is that we got rid of notes at our weekly meeting. There’s only 8 people and every week, someone had to spend 30-45 minutes to send out notes that most people never read. Eliminating them has been a timesaver, yet I see so many groups continue this practice. Oddly, we don’t have anyone take and send out brief notes from our staff meetings, which over 100 people attend. If you miss them and don’t chat with a co-worker, you could have missed an organization initiative or important presentation relevant to your work. That’s not so smart in my opinion.

Brainstorms are a different ballgame. I’ve led a couple on random areas. There’s nothing more beneficial to a project than refreshing it wholly every couple of years and getting new perspectives. Sometimes this is easy – just to solicit opinions without a meeting. For example, last year I sent an e-mail out to Development and Alumni Association employees asking for ideas for campus tours and Classes Without Quizzes that I organize every year at Reunion Homecoming. I think I do a great job researching new ideas, but spending 10 minutes to craft an e-mail, I ended up with 13 pages worth of recommendations. Collective wisdom is invaluable! Creative brainstorms are better around a table. To look at pricing for reunions, I pulled in some folks working on the program, staff alums and some other random folks to get many points of view. These kinds of meetings can require more time, a solid facilitator and co-workers invested in the goal.

I’m on a task force at the Alumni Association reviewing performance management, and our cabinet member likes to do a plus/delta at the end of the meeting. I’m not sure I would employ it for all of my meetings, but it can be a great tool at the end to spend a couple minutes with the group deciding what worked well and what could have been better. Another great tool that I haven’t adopted (since I attend more meetings than I run) is available on Dan Markovitz’s Timeback Blog: the Standard Work for Meetings spreadsheet, which is a simple, great way to track how effective you are at running meetings.

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