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Meetings: Keeping Briefings Brief

A quick look at how one company is using shared responsibility and a tight agenda to keep meetings short.

Nothing saps the spirit like watching, powerless, as a meeting wanders into oblivion. But Flight Time International makes meetings work. A tight agenda holds meetings to less than half an hour; shared responsibility keeps attendees alert and teaches them new skills. And having written minutes reinforces follow-up action.

The 14 employees at the Brookline, Mass., travel agency take turns hosting the weekly updates. Beforehand, the host asks the others how long they'll talk and on what topic, and then sets the time and the agenda. Everyone agrees to keep things short. The one-page agenda lists items such as "Paul -- newsletter update (three minutes)." The meeting may start with sales quickly listing new customers and deals closed; then accounting might talk about setting up escrow accounts for certain clients. The format extinguishes rumors, says marketing vice-president Paul Thurman. "Everyone hears things simultaneously, firsthand."

Playing host gives employees experience in organizing and running meetings. For his part, Thurman is working on correcting his sloppy note-taking skills: "I've gotten better now that people are depending on me for a permanent record," he says.

The host enforces the agenda. For instance, Thurman says, "Jane, one of the founders, may get too detailed and start talking about pricing a particular trip instead of general pricing policies. I'll say, 'Maybe we can talk about this at lunch. Let's get back on track.' " When a less forceful host allows lengthy digressions, other attendees take it upon themselves to interrupt.

The host also takes meeting minutes, types them up, and circulates them. The minutes are to be read and initialed by everyone; they can also be referred to later if follow-up tasks have been left undone. -- Phaedra Hise

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