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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Mastering the Meeting

We've all been in those meetings -- the interminable ones, the overcrowded ones, the sparsely attended ones, the unproductive ones and the way-too-frequent ones. In fact, there are so many examples of how to run a meeting poorly that it might be tempting to give up on doing a good job. But business and productivity experts say with a little discretion, planning and leadership, meetings can be productive.

The first step to running a successful meeting is to fully understand the cost of doing so. In their book Rework (Crown Business, March 2010), entrepreneurs and authors David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried remind readers that by scheduling an hour-long meeting and inviting 10 people, you have created a 10-hour meeting. "You're trading 10 hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time," they write. And that's not accounting for the "mental switch costs" associated with stopping work, going to the meeting, coming back and restarting what you were doing. The tremendous productivity cost of holding a meeting doesn't mean you never should, but "think about the time you're actually losing and ask yourself if it's really worth it," they recommend.

One way to ensure these costs stay in check is to set a timer during meetings; when it goes off, the meeting is over, no matter what. Hansson and Fried recommend this, and it is an infamous technique at Google. Marissa Mayer, a vice president at the technology company, reportedly projects a 4-foot timer onto the wall during her meetings. She told BusinessWeek in 2006 that the presence of the timer "exerts a subtle pressure to keep meetings running on schedule." Or maybe not so subtle!

One surefire way to ensure meetings stay on track, both in terms of time and substance, is to develop a solid agenda beforehand. Cyrus Farivar, who has written a series of articles on how to run an effective meeting for CBS' BNet, recommends jotting down the agenda before you even call the meeting. In addition to ensuring everyone understands the objectives of the gathering before responding, developing an agenda early will help confirm whether a meeting is truly necessary and will clarify who should be invited. It also will allow team members who are expected to manage an agenda to set aside time to sufficiently prepare.

In their book Running a Meeting That Works (Barron's Educational Series, April 1997), Robert Miller and Marilyn Pincus identify four steps that every meeting should include:

  • Presenting the information
  • Evaluating the information
  • Coming to a decision
  • Taking action

It is that fourth point that makes all the difference. Rework stresses that every meeting should end with a solution and a designation of who is responsible for implementing that solution. The key goal is to ensure that everyone leaves knowing what is expected of them and when.

The leader is, of course, responsible for keeping the meeting trains running on time and accomplishing the established goals. Miller and Pincus write that running a meeting successfully requires really only two things of leaders: they maintain control over the proceedings and they give the meeting their undivided attention. Tone is crucial to maintaining control and refocusing the conversation if discussion veers off-course. But if a tangent is important, consider being flexible. Farivar recommends asking if the group would like to swap out an agenda item to discuss the new topic.

Despite all the good advice available for running a meeting effectively, it is most important to remember that an unnecessary meeting cannot, by definition, be run successfully. Ensure that you have justified the purpose of every meeting before sending out an invitation, not simply allowed inertia to bring you and your team together on that first Monday, third Wednesday or any other arbitrarily designated interval.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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