To Meet or Not to Meet…What are the Questions?

By: Susan Friedmann

Meetings can be a total waste of time or a powerful and productive communication tool that solve problems, stimulate ideas, promote team spirit and generate action. The results lie totally in how they are run. Organized and well-managed meetings will inevitably produce effective results. Whereas, meetings that are poorly managed lack purpose and focus are a total waste of an organization’s time and money.

From my observations working with hundreds of different companies, I have noticed that people seem to be meeting more, enjoying it less and frustrated that they have so little time to get their “real" work done. They talk about meetings as being a “necessary evil." Research conducted by the Annenberg School of Communications at UCLA and the University of Minnesota’s Training & Development Research Center show that executives on average spend 40-50% of their working hours in meetings. The studies also point out that as much as 50% of meeting time is unproductive and that up to 25% is spent discussing irrelevant issues.

I have certainly had more than my fair share of the good, the bad and the ugly meetings, both as a paid employee and as a volunteer. I have also experienced the wonderful sense of satisfaction from productive sessions, as well as the frustration and anger from ineffective sessions. I believe that the key to success lies not only in the preparation and organization, but also in the way in which the meeting is managed. When ego and power can be put aside, it is so much easier to get on with the task at hand.

All of this begs to ask the question, “Are meetings really necessary?" Well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. Wisdom is knowing the difference and fully understanding this primary question.

Are Meetings Really Necessary?

Inherent as part of our society is the need to come together with others to share information, make decisions, plan, discuss, talk things over, argue, question, iron out differences, compare notes, gossip, and much more. Families, schools, clubs, businesses and governments comprise groups of men, women and children all coming together for a specific purpose. All of this means that meeting is a natural function of our existence.

As humans we need the connection with others to survive. Very few people chose to be a hermit and seclude themselves from others. Although, I am sure, like me, many of you reading this may have fantasized about being alone on a desert island, far away from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. We also need to belong, communicate and share a common purpose with likeminded individuals.

The reality is that doing things alone for any length of time is counterproductive. It is only when we work in partnership with others and pool our resources that things get done in a more efficient and effective way.

Meetings are becoming even more necessary for people’s survival with the plethora of entrepreneurs operating from home-based businesses, employees telecommuting or working endless hours in front of computer screens. The need for human interaction is critical.

Not to mention the fact that meetings also minimize or eliminate many of those popular time-wasting activities such as phone tag, unnecessary e-mails, or volumes of paper.

But, when we consider the myriads of business meetings that take place every year, there are many, you know as well as I, which should never have taken place. Now the $64,000 question is “When to hold a meeting (and when not to)?

Thirteen Reasons to Hold a Meeting?

Deciding to hold a meeting should be a serious consideration since there are so many costs involved, direct and indirect – people’s time and productivity, for example. So, the first thing is for the person wanting to hold the meeting to determine how necessary it is to meet. Here is a list of thirteen major reasons people need to meet:

  • To communicate or request vital information.

  • When you need a group consensus.

  • To respond to questions or concerns.

  • When you need a decision or an evaluation on an issue.

  • When you need acceptance or support of an idea.

  • To sell an idea, product or service.

  • To brainstorm ideas.

  • To solve a problem, conflict or difference of opinion.

  • To generate a sense of team spirit.

  • To provide training or clarification of a project.

  • To alter perceptions or attitudes.

  • To provide reassurance on an issue or situation.

  • To create an awareness or interest in an idea, situation or project.

Thirteen Reasons Not to Hold a Meeting?

Meetings can easily become addictive, so before you schedule another meeting for the sake of it, check to make sure that you are not meeting for the wrong reasons. Here are thirteen reasons not to hold a meeting:

  • When you meet for the sake of meeting – same time, same place, every week.

  • When someone’s ego gets in the way and they want to look important and in control.

  • When the information could be communicated another way.

  • When key people are unavailable.

  • When participants don’t have time to prepare.

  • When your decision is made and you don’t want any input.

  • When your decision is controversial and is likely to create resistance.

  • When the costs are greater than the benefits.

  • When other issues blur the decision at hand.

  • When the subject matter is confidential.

  • When nothing would be gained or lost by not having a meeting.

  • When you have nothing else to do and want to look busy.

  • When you want an excuse to get out of the office.

Eight Common Meeting Substitutes

If after careful consideration you decide that your meeting isn’t necessary, how else can you communicate your thoughts, ideas, or suggestions? Aside from telepathy and carrier pigeon, here are eight common meeting substitutes:

  • Arrange a telephone conference call.

  • Write a memo (no longer than a page).

  • Write a brief report.

  • Fax your information.

  • E-mail your information.

  • Post the information on your company’s intranet.

  • Arrange a series of one-on-one discussions.

  • Do breakfast, lunch or dinner, especially when you want to get to know the other person better.

What Makes an Effective Meeting?

As I mentioned before, meeting for the sake of meeting is a waste of time and likely to be totally ineffectual. In addition to the planning and preparation of any meeting, an important aspect of what makes a meeting effective, will depend on the perception of the participants.

A person’s perception is their reality, which means that however well the chairperson feels about the meeting, isn’t necessarily how the participants feel. In fact, some opinions may well be formed several days or weeks afterwards, especially, in the case of actions taken, or not taken, as a result of decisions made at the meeting.

With this in mind let’s address some of the positive feelings people experience that help label a meeting as effective. Here are ten common areas:

  1. When participants can share and participate openly.

  2. When wacky/creative ideas are given airtime.

  3. When participants are an integral part of the decision-making process.

  4. When participants feel good about agreed decisions.

  5. When decisions are high quality and will advance a project.

  6. When participants see actions taken as a result of decisions agreed upon.

  7. When the meeting begins and ends on time.

  8. When all agenda items are covered.

  9. When no one participant is allowed to dominate.

  10. When participants feel united as a group.

What Makes an Ineffective Meeting?

Since we’ve taken time to list the positive aspects, it’s only right to complete the picture and look at some of the negative perceptions and opinions. Here are ten common areas:

  1. When a meeting is called because it’s been a while since the previous meeting.

  2. When a meeting is called just to find out what projects people are working on.

  3. When a meeting takes up more time than necessary.

  4. When one participant is allowed to dominate the entire meeting.

  5. When the meeting is a one-way dialogue.

  6. When there is no completion and items discussed are left hanging with no action plan.

  7. When the meeting facilitator allows discussion to ramble on into unrelated topics.

  8. When wacky/creative ideas are dismissed without a second thought.

  9. When the meeting includes discussion points that aren’t relevant to the people present.

  10. When to many people attend and the group effectiveness diminishes.

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