“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” John Kenneth Galbraith

An astonishing number of people I have meetings with seem to have no idea how to either hold or run a meeting that has a clear purpose and a desired outcome, or outcomes. Sometimes it's completely understandable – if the meeting owner is inexperienced, or hasn't been trained in running meetings – sometimes it's baffling. I've been in various forms of meeting over the course of the last week involving from three people to over twenty. None of them has been as productive as they might have been if they had had good meetings discipline, meetings protocols, and in some cases common courtesy. As a result, this past week I felt myself grow increasingly testy as I attended the various meetings. This was not good. So I took time to step back to think about meetings, but not entirely successfully as I came up with a list of questions that suggested to me that I was still feeling irritable. Here are the questions:

1. Can organizations be designed so that they become meetingless?
2. Would an organization development consultant add megabucks to the bottom line if all they ever did was facilitate effective meetings (forget talent management, etc)?
3. Is it productive to suggest meeting participants develop meeting protocols and stick to them or does that just earmark one as being a fool?
4. Are face to face meetings better run than meetings where participants are remote from each other?
5. Are meetings where all participants are remote from each other better run than face to face meetings?
6. Is technology an enabler or disabler of productive meetings? (Some clues on this "Sorry, the call dropped." "No I can't see your screen." "You're very faint, can you speak up." "Ha ha ha I like/don't like your yellow wallpaper." "I'm just going to plug in the other phone".)

I toyed with the idea of turning the questions into a quiz where the answers could be along the lines of either 'yes/no', or on a scale of 1 – 5, or a set of statements like 'don't interrupt I'm in a meeting.' In my dour mood I felt that it would reveal that most meetings are considered at best a marginal waste of time and at worst a complete waste of time. (Some of the scoring would be dependent on whether the respondent has been able to do other things while in the meeting, like eating lunch, sending emails, or reading the news on his/her i-pad).

I recounted some of my more frustrating meeting moments to friends this morning. Actually, it was a book club meeting but we are allowed about 15 minutes before the book discussion to catch up and have a laugh. (Maybe that's 'community building'?).

The types of meetings I was in during the week comprised:

1. Telephone (voice only) calls with individuals in different locations each using either a cell phone, softphones, or headset. i.e. one speaker one device
2. Telephone via speaker phone with people meeting face to face in a room somewhere i.e. some people remote on individual devices, others meeting in a room together with the individual devices piped through one device.
3. Calls piped through Lync. SIDEBAR "Microsoft Lync is an enterprise-ready unified communications platform. With Lync, users can keep track of their contacts' availability; send an IM; start or join an audio, video, or web conference; or make a phone call-—all through a consistent, familiar interface."
4. Face to face meetings with no remote call in people

Some of the types 1 – 3 used Webex or similar to show or share documents, some of them have employed fast and furious emailing of the documents we are all supposed to be looking at. This happens when the Webex (or Webex lookalike) technology fails or the instigator of the meeting is not skilled with Webex. Or if some of the people are participating through their smartphones with no laptop. (I haven't yet mastered the art of speaking on the phone and simultaneously opening and reading a document on it.)

In my Xerox days I thought their meetings management was a little over the top. It involved timekeeping, a tight agenda, knowing what we were to do with each agenda item (discuss, decide, etc), and how long we should spend on it. At the end of the meeting we had to allow time for a red/green assessment – what worked well in the meeting and what we would improve for next time around. Now I think most of this approach is very sensible, and probably essential.

There are a ton of hints and tips on meetings management (which somehow fail to make it to the meetings) but I'm going to offer some here too. However, I'm going to concentrate on meeting type 2. That is some people remote and some people in a room together. If you're reading this while you're in a meeting stop reading now. Participate in the meeting instead.

Ten tips for meeting owners

1 Know who owns the meeting. If it's you ensure that you a) have an agenda and b) circulate it preferably ahead of time – at least the one you want to reveal. Participants are usually left to work out the hidden agenda but it's much better not to have one. The agenda should include the purpose of the meeting in specific terms and the desired outcomes of it.
2 If you're using technology start it at least 5 minutes ahead of the meeting and get the documents on screen. Consider using webcams or video so everyone can see each other.
3 Start the meeting on time. Invite each of the participants to state his/her name so everyone knows who is on the call. Remind people to say their names when they start to speak. For people new to the meeting or listening remotely it is not easy to pick up who is speaking.
4 Actively engage people who are remote. It is very difficult as a remote meeting participant to jump into the conversation when people in the room are all talking to each other. Active engagement means saying things like 'What's your view …?', or "Have you anything you'd like to add?" specifically addressed to a named remote participant.
5 Encourage remote people to use the Webex or similar tools to engage in the discussion – the chat box, and the raised hand, for example. But make sure you are looking to see if these are being activated.
6 Ensure only one person speaks at a time in room and on phone. It is very hard to follow multiple conversations from a phone (as it is in the room but that doesn't seem to deter people).
7 Be aware of cultural differences – some people are not happy yelling over others to make their point but others seem to have no such concerns. Everyone should have adequate airtime and be attentively listened to.
8 Stick to the agenda and the timings. Have someone taking notes on each item which, if using Webex or similar, appear on screen as they are being taken.
9 Ask speakers to pause at intervals so people can add comments. Keep an on-screen note of 'parking lot' items.
10. Finish the meeting on time. Follow up the meeting with a note of meeting minutes, decisions, action items with delivery dates, and action owners.

Following these tips will go some way towards a productive, inclusive meeting. Try it out. If it doesn't improve the meeting outcomes don't go back to the old way. Try a different form of improvement.

Additional tip sheets that I like:
Communicate Virtually Anything

Virtual Meetings Are Like Broccoli: 8 Tips for Better Virtual Project Meetings

3 Tips for Holding Non-Agonizing Virtual Meetings