How to Keep Meetings From Eating Into Your Bottom Line

No business wants to admit that it’s inefficient, lacks clear direction or wastes tens of thousands of dollars. And yet businesses everywhere are doing just that by holding unnecessary, unproductive and unpopular meetings. Shifting your company culture away from meetings can make your businesses more productive and employees more engaged and efficient. Here's how.

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Shift the Perception

What does it look like when a meeting's "done right"? The first order of business is to change the way meetings are perceived; from a necessary evil that generates a lot of hot air and accomplishes little to a group conversation aimed at solving a problem, says Axtell.

"If you must have meetings, start by shifting the way you talk about them. Instead of the usual dread, fear and boredom, emphasize that meetings are, at their core, a way for multiple people to have a conversation and communicate about solving a problem. That way you are honoring the time and energy your talent invests by focusing on what you can do to support them and their efforts," says Axtell.

Teach Communication and Speaking Skills

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to productive meetings is the fact that, for most attendees, communication isn't their strong suit, according to Axtell, especially in the IT industry, which is dominated by engineers, analysts and technical folk, not public speakers and communications-savvy workers.

To overcome this obstacle, it might be worthwhile to invest in some training and professional development courses aimed at teaching these basic communication skills so workers feel more confident expressing themselves and can do so much more concisely and effectively.

"After their core discipline, your people need to be proficient at conversation, and most workers aren't giving any thought to working on core skills - 'how do I start a conversation, make my point, wrap up, be effective and efficient at delivering a message?" Axtell says.

"Listening, too, is a skill that is almost universally missing from the workforce, but it can be learned and honed," says Axtell.

Keep It Small and Intimate

To better facilitate effective communication and ensure every attendee has the chance to speak and be heard, try and keep meeting size small, says Axtell. A group of four or five people will necessarily feel more intimate and personal, and will not only have more time to connect with each other, listen and suggest solutions, but any disagreement will be handled more gently and tactfully, he says.

"When I talk to clients, they almost always tell me they find it easier to be authentic, open and honest in groups of four or five. When they're forced to be in large group meetings, there's not enough intimacy for them to feel secure, and the chance that good ideas or innovative solutions will get drowned out increases," Axtell says.

In addition, notes Axtell, in groups of four or five, it's much more likely that core issues and problems will be addressed and resolved, and that unrelated topics will be left for another time.

Always Have an Agenda -- and Stick to It

Even in small groups, it can be easy to get sidetracked. It's important to keep the conversation focused only on the issues and topics that must be resolved with only the people needed to resolve them. That's why planning and sticking to an agenda is especially important.

"An agenda is nothing more than a path for resolution of an issue. One thing people forget when holding meetings is that these conversations must be designed with a specific outcome in mind, with a set time and a plan for getting to the bottom of whatever issue you're discussing," Axtell says.

The POWER of Productive Meetings

Tate advocates a strategy based around the acronym POWER: Purpose, Outcomes, Who, Execution, Responsibility.

Purpose

This is the "why" behind the meeting. Before the meeting, this must be clearly stated, as well as put into context for those who must attend. It's also helpful to anchor the meeting's purpose into a larger, strategic business priority.

Outcomes

What will definitively happen at the close of the meeting? Is this a decision-making meeting? Then, one way or the other, it will reach a decision by the end of the allotted time. "The outcome could be to inform my colleagues about the new vacation policy. But the fact is, there must be an outcome, otherwise the meeting hasn't served any practical purpose," says Tate.

Who

This aspect of the meeting dictates not only who attends, but assigns specific tasks to each attendee. "You decide who are the right people in the room to provide the data, the background, the context surrounding the topics and issues that will be addressed. That way, those folks all come prepared with the information needed for the larger group to reach a decision," says Tate.

Execution

This part of the agenda should stay blank until the meeting begins, and is filled in while the meeting's taking place to spell out exactly how the participants will get from problem to solution. This ensures that each attendee has specific actions and tasks to attend to after the meeting's over, notes Tate.

Responsibility

Before the meeting ends, make sure that each attendee understands what they're accountable for and that they have the authority to complete the tasks assigned to them in the "execution" stage. "This doesn't necessarily mean they have to do specific tasks themselves -- it could mean they follow up on an assignment with their supervisor or another department. But they must take responsibility for their task and accept the associated deadlines and timeframes, too," Tate says.

Final Thoughts

Shifting organizational culture away from endless meetings is by no means an easy task, and it certainly won't happen overnight. But it's an undertaking well-worth trying; one that can help increase productivity, streamline business process and boost employee engagement, morale and job satisfaction. So, next time you get a meeting request, consider declining and see what happens.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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