The Meeting Morass

There are way too many of them, they take too long and don't accomplish much. Can meetings be fixed?
by | January 1, 2008

Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene

Katherine and Richard are Governing columnists with expertise in government management.

One of the advantages of being a husband-and-wife team is that we're interested in one another's work. Truth be told, very few of our friends really care very much about performance measurement, turnover rates in local government or rainy-day funds. We discuss these things in private.

But we've recently come across one issue afflicting public-sector managers that not only gets a rise out of people who aren't in that business but provokes remarkably strong responses from those who are: meetings. There are way too many of them, they take too long and don't accomplish much. The uniformity of dismay is nearly universal.

"There are too many ineffective meetings in almost every organization," says Larry Beckon, a consultant to the Michigan Department of Transportation. And Beckon knows why. "Many meetings," he says, "have no expected outcomes."

One solution is pretty simple and is probably the Golden Rule for Productive Meetings: Have an agenda. It should be prepared in advance and be well organized.

How can that be accomplished? By grouping similar items, suggests Tom Smyth, senior policy adviser for the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. That way, "all participants don't have to be there for stuff they are not involved in."

Smyth also recommends that an approximate time to be spent on each agenda item be given and that handouts or other reading material be distributed before the meeting. That way no time is wasted while participants try to read through a 20-page memo as the meeting progresses. "Nothing is more irritating," he says, "than having to decide right now on something you are just seeing for the first time."

A few other tips about agendas: Don't include too many topics; let meeting-goers know what is supposed to be accomplished with regard to each item; and distribute the agenda at least 48 hours before the meeting.

An organized agenda is only a start. Getting a bunch of people sitting around a table to stick to it is never easy -- particularly when they are powerful folks in the organization. As far as we can see, getting important men and women to stay quiet when they really want to talk is a Herculean task, beyond the capacity of most managers.

There are some other good improve-your-meeting ideas out there. Dana Badgerow, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration, suggests having a large clock in the meeting room that is visible to all participants. "It helps with time management," he says. Simple, maybe, but we've long noticed the absence of clocks in meeting rooms. Maybe this is done to avoid time pressure when making important decisions -- although relatively few of the decisions made in meetings are all that important. A little pressure isn't always a bad thing.

There are a growing number of people who advocate making people stand during meetings. We think this is a little draconian. Still, if time is in short supply, it seems to work. "I happen to favor high heels, and therefore don't like standing for long periods of time," says Gloria Diaz, a manager with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Personally, I would definitely keep to the topic if I attended stand-up meetings."

Of course, the value of any of these thoughts is partially contingent on making sure the right people are in the room in the first place. It may feel like it's good manners to invite everybody possible to every meeting. But it's not good use of valuable time. It's also important, in many cases, to make sure that there's someone at the meeting who actually has the power to make decisions.

You can also try scheduling meetings for one hour before lunch -- avoiding the temptation to serve lunch. And think about teleconferencing for people who have to travel across the city to attend the meeting. In large urban areas, bad traffic can add a one-hour commute to a 30-minute meeting.

Finally, Luther Krueger, crime-prevention analyst for the Minneapolis police department, suggests that an organization "cancel all meetings for a month and see who misses them. If nobody squawks, cancel them permanently. If they do squawk, request their justification for the meeting inwriting."

It's kind of hard to picture many organizations with the fortitude to use Krueger's suggestion. But in the case of automatic monthly meetings, it might well be worth trying.


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