PRODUCTIVITY

4 Ways to Keep People From Derailing Meetings

It's high time you make your team huddles more productive affairs. Here's how to do it.
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When is the last time you were in a fantastic meeting? I'd venture to say the majority of internal meetings are painful and expensive time-sucks, especially if you consider the collective wages and time your company is losing for however many people to sit around and talk.

Sure, they're sometimes a necessary evil--not everything can be ironed out via other methods of communication. But how can you make sure your huddles are productive affairs? Here are some ideas.

1. Stop derailment before it starts.

Author of "Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results," Roger Schwarz recently wrote a guest blog for Harvard Business Review in which he said there are three things you can do to keep a meeting from going off-track.

First, spell out and get agreement on the purpose of each part of the meeting. If someone believes other issues need to be addressed they'll have the opportunity to say so instead of bringing them forward as rabbit trails once the meeting is rolling along.

"If it's not your meeting and there is no agenda, simply ask, 'Can we take a minute to get clear on the purpose and topics for the meeting to make sure we accomplish what you need?'" Schwarz writes.

Also, don't move to a new subject without properly closing out the prior one. Ask people if there's anything else that needs to be addressed regarding the topic. If someone isn't ready to move on, find out why not. Doing so lessens the chance they'll reintroduce the same subjects down the road.

And if you think someone is derailing a meeting, determine if they're doing it for a legitimate reason. Tactfully ask him or her how what they're talking about relates to the subject in question. Maybe there's a connection you or others hadn't considered.

2. Hold your stand-up meetings at 5 p.m.

Stand-up meetings aren't new, but making people do it at a time of day when they want to go home is an unconventional way to ensure a meeting doesn't stray off-course.

Here's what one LifeHacker commenter has to say about the idea:

I inherited chairmanship of a weekly meeting on warranty returns that typically drug out to between 1.5 to 2 hours and actually accomplished very little. Two thirds of the twenty people that attended had no reason to be there beyond the free doughnuts that were furnished, but had to have their say so (usually off topic). One morning, the big wheels had preempted the main conference room, and had taken all of the chairs from the smaller one we had to use (they took all the doughnuts too). The meeting took just 20 minutes. From then on I held the weekly meeting in the small conference room and made sure there were no chairs or doughnuts. Within 3 weeks the number of attendees had dropped dramatically and we were able to get back to work within 15 to 20 minutes with everything the meeting was supposed to accomplish done. Within a couple of months, attendance was down to the 4 people that really needed to be there and the meeting was moved to my office.

Another benefit of standing--it gets people off their butts. According to the American Heart Association nearly 179 million children and adults in the United States are overweight or obese. That's more than half the population and a huge factor in why employer insurance rates continue to climb.

3. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

LinkedIn has done away with in-meeting presentations because people can read them on their own. But CEO Jeff Weiner has some other strong beliefs about meeting etiquette. He stresses the importance of defining semantics. He writes:

It never ceases to amaze me how often meetings go off the rails by virtue of semantic differences. Picture a United Nations General Assembly gathering without the real-time translation headphones and you'll have the right visual. Words have power, and as such, it's worth investing time upfront to ensure everyone is on the same page in terms of what certain keywords, phrases, and concepts mean to the various constituencies around the table.

Weiner says it's also important to identify one person to "keep the car on the road" by making sure the conversation remains relevant, no one dominates the discussion, and adjunct discussions are taken offline.

4. Agree on rules and have them enforced by an issue-neutral person.

The worst offenders when it comes to derailing meetings are ramblers, bores, show-offs, latecomers, naysayers, timewasters, and minutia-minders, writes Charlie Hawkins, president of Seahawk Associates, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based management resource for strategic planning, idea generation, and communications effectiveness.

The first thing to do, he says, is agree on ground rules. For example, your team could agree that meetings will start and end on time, a prioritized agenda will be followed and no side conversations are allowed. You could even make a rule that chronic latecomers will be tasked with facilitating the next meeting.

Then, when ramblers ramble, someone can raise the agenda rule. Use some kind of parking lot--a board, paper or other mechanism--for capturing side issues that can be addressed at a later time. And you can appease attention-seekers by giving them a job, such as timekeeper.

Hawkins says gentle but assertive facilitation is better than direct confrontation and should be employed by an issue-neutral person who's not the boss or someone otherwise invested in the outcome.

Work with a particularly disruptive person? Don't invite him or her to meetings. If that's not possible, the person's supervisor will have to initiate a frank conversation. This direct approach might not be fun for anyone, but it's worth doing if it results in less time wasted in meetings.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 4, 2013




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