“Everyone is being pulled in a thousand directions at every moment,” says Kim Springer, acting chief performance auditor in Austin, Texas. “I spend much of the day at meetings and then at the end of the day is when I do my real work.”
Based on hundreds of conversations we’ve had with public officials over the years, Springer reflects a common problem: However necessary meetings are to move a project forward, they also easily consume much of the time necessary to actually implement a project.
Even some of the technology designed to create better meetings can be counterproductive. Take conference calls. They’re ubiquitous and can be much simpler to schedule than in-person meetings. But they can also be nightmarish for those calling in.
“The people who aren’t in the room can feel like second-class citizens,” says Neil Hartman, a lecturer of managerial communication at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
For one thing, callers can’t see reactions to their comments that resist a particular thought. It’s rare for anyone to actually say “please stop talking,” so that message often comes across with rolling eyes and shaking heads. Additionally, the off-site participants can have difficulty joining the conversation if they can’t see the signs that any particular moment is a good time to chime in. The inability to read the room can stymie the willingness of people not at the table to be fully involved.
But there are, of course, occasions when it’s nearly impossible to get everyone together in one room. In Tennessee, for example, driving across the state takes longer than travelling from Nashville to Canada, so bringing everyone together can be a time-consuming task. When that’s the case, Rebecca Hunter, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Resources, recommends video conferencing.
“In my experience,” she says, “people on video conferences ask questions, and it’s as though they were in the room.”
Another technological aid that can sometimes impede productivity is the PowerPoint presentation. Certainly, a few slides can help illustrate a complex concept. But taken to an extreme, putting together a presentation entirely based on slides gets in the way of efficiency and progress.
“We call that Death by PowerPoint,” says Mara Register, leadership development program manager at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
But at least PowerPoints and conference calls have positive uses. Many public officials are regularly frustrated by the forest of cellphones that dot the edges of conference tables, as people send and receive texts, check e-mail and so on.
“It’s like they’re all looking at their belly buttons,” says Greg Burris, city manager of Springfield, Mo. “And what kind of message does that send to the presenter? The message is that anything you say is less important than the text that someone just got.”
Burris recalls a previous boss who -- in an effort to motivate people to participate -- would “go around the room and mention the hourly salaries of the people there” to make them realize how much the organization was paying for the meeting.
So what can be done to build an efficient and effective meeting? There are a few generally agreed-upon notions that tend to make for positive and productive meetings.
1. Start the meeting on time. “If you start the meeting at 1:00, pretty soon people will start being there at 1:00 because they don’t want to miss anything,” says MIT's Hartman.
2. Have an agenda. Of course, though, agendas are only useful if people know about them in advance. This is critical so that people will be informed about the topics and can prepare for the meeting.
3. Set time limits. It can be helpful to break up a meeting into component parts, each with a time limit. “When there’s actually a time limit on every item, it puts subtle pressure to stay focused,” says Hartman. Getting meetings back on target requires the utmost of civility -- balancing the feelings of the person being cut off with the need to accomplish the meeting’s goals. It’s generally good counsel not to just cut off a speaker with a curt “Let’s move things along here,” but rather to use language couched more delicately. Hartman recommends the phrase, “We appreciate what you’ve been saying, but we want to hear from others in the room.”