We've all been there. Stuck in yet another agonizingly boring, ineffective, unproductive meeting. When, we wonder, can we get back to our real work? We're happy to report that there are exceptions to this sad state of affairs. We've checked out a variety of organizations to see what we could learn about making meetings work. Here's a look at some of the more creative strategies and tools we discovered.
"OK, hands up."
With that simple phrase and a raising of the leader's hand, meetings at City Year, a Boston-based, nationwide nonprofit service organization, are called to order. Other hands shoot up as one by one, conversations cease, until all is quiet. Although City Year uses this physically engaging meeting-start-up technique in groups as small as a dozen, it's especially valuable with large groups, says Edith Buhs. Buhs is the national director of the Academy, the training arm of City Year, which teaches effective-meeting techniques and provides tools--not only to City Year's 1,200 staff and corps members but also to interested nonprofit and for-profit corporations.
Effective-meeting workshops were originally deemed necessary because of the youth and diversity of City Year's members, but experienced meeting goers could easily adopt some of City Year's power tools. Most meetings begin with a warm-up exercise of some kind. At a recent meeting anticipating the organization's 10th anniversary, a four-by-eight-foot magazine-cover mock-up commemorating the event encouraged big thinking: participants generated ideas for the stories the "magazine" would feature. Other meetings might begin with what are called "ripples," named for a phrase in a speech by Robert F. Kennedy, in which he said that acts of courage send a "tiny ripple of hope." Anyone can share a ripple. The ripple may be something that happened within the organization. Or maybe it's something from last night's 11 o'clock news. The point is to celebrate the good, to create an updraft of positive emotion.
Most City Year meetings employ a ground rule called NOSTUESO to keep domineering or wordy individuals from monopolizing discussions and to ensure that all voices are heard. The acronym stands for "No One Speaks Twice Until Everybody Speaks Once."
Meeting leaders are also taught to end their meetings with another meeting, a minimeeting called "+(delta)." The mission: to quickly assess the meeting itself. Under the plus sign, leaders write down what worked. Under the delta symbol, they record changes that need to be made, phrasing those recommendations in positive terms: not, for instance, "Meeting too long," but rather "Meeting should be shorter."
The Computer-Aided Note Taker
Organization: Mattel Media, a division of giant Mattel Toys in El Segundo, Calif.
Purpose of Meeting: To develop products
"If people are writing things down, they're often not paying attention," says Andy Rifkin, senior vice-president of creative development for Mattel Media. Thus, there's no note taking allowed at Rifkin's new-product-idea meetings, creative huddles of seven or eight people. Just one self-proclaimed "technographer," Bernie DeKoven, records everyone's ideas on a laptop, the entries appearing before the group either on a 35-inch color monitor or projected onto the wall.
DeKoven--whose title at Mattel is "doctor fun/staff designer"--is not your ordinary note taker. An expert in meeting dynamics, he founded the Institute for Better Meetings, which nowadays takes a backseat to his full-time duties at Mattel.
Unlike whiteboards, which fill up and have to be erased, the holding tank in DeKoven's computer is boundless. Following the group's direction, he can edit ideas as he goes along, drag related notions alongside each other, rerank choices, and, without saying a word, redirect everyone's attention merely by scrolling back to earlier notations.
Even without a meeting maven like DeKoven on board, you still might want to consider the idea of having one person take notes on a computer, because of a key additional benefit: everyone can leave the meeting with a hard-copy record in hand, and that instant meeting record can be E-mailed to the rest of your company. As a plus for Mattel, DeKoven stores what he and Rifkin call "boneyard" ideas--ideas that are rejected in the meeting--in a separate section of the notes. Out of sight but easily brought back to mind, some of those dismissed notions often become valuable later on in the context of another project. Touring with toy buyers a while back, Rifkin heard repeated requests for activity-based toys for boys. Picking through the boneyard of a year-old meeting, he found a Hot Wheels CD-ROM concept for designing and decorating cars and printing licenses and tickets. Thus did Hot Wheels Custom Car Designer go from idle to high speed in about 6.5 seconds. It has disappeared from toy-store shelves almost as quickly. The meeting moral: Don't flush your rejects.
Organization: The Phelps Group, a Santa Monica, Calif., marketing agency
Purpose of Meeting: To build camaraderie and cooperation
Every Monday at 9:28 a.m., Joe Phelps goes on the public-address system with a "two-minute warning." Each of his 50 or so employees heads for an all-purpose room, where most of them remain standing. The carrot for prompt attendance and the first item on the agenda: a $100 bill to the employee whose phone extension is drawn at random-- if he or she can correctly answer a question from the employee handbook.
The meetings themselves move through the same five agenda headings each week. After the drawing, the second item on the agenda is for the company's teams--advertising, direct marketing, production, and media--to show off their new work. The third is to announce important agency or client business. The title of the fourth agenda item, "Minutes," is a clarion call for brevity. Each of the teams delivers a one-minute mini-lesson, teaching the group about some key piece of expertise or perhaps handing out and summarizing a helpful article. There's also a technology minute, a grammar minute (on the use of quotation marks, for instance), and an office-machine minute (which might cover, say, copier jams).
The last agenda item: the Atta Boy/Atta Girl Award. This two-by-two-foot wooden plaque, festooned with personal effects (pennies from the company controller, a Pez dispenser), is awarded each week. The current award holder selects the next recipient and passes on the ever-more-decorated plaque, which has become a powerful company totem.
"It's great to have a group experience at the beginning of the week," says CEO Phelps. It's one counterbalance to the increasingly technology-enabled workplace, which fosters less and less face-to-face contact.
Get Ready, Get Set--Type!
Organization: Any group with $5,000 to spend on one meeting
Purpose of Meeting: To generate and select ideas
For $5,000 a day, meeting facilitator Douglas Griffen, a managing partner of D.S. Griffen & Associates, of Scottsdale, Ariz., will arrive at your doorstep with networked laptops, a server, a laser printer, and even a CD player.
At one particular meeting, the question on the table is "What new markets can we enter?" The question appears on 20 laptop screens set up around a U-shaped table. You type a suggestion and hit the submit key. Your screen clears and asks, "What else?" You can see everybody's ideas on the top half of your screen. One of those suggestions gives you an idea, which you quickly type and submit. Fifteen minutes of brainstorming passes--and nobody has said a word.
What does this get you? More ideas and quick, reliable, computer-assisted skimming of the cream, says Griffen. Lively jazz pumps up the energy level. Theoretically, all 20 people at the meeting can talk simultaneously--and anonymously. No more wasting time kissing up to the boss's idea. No more inhibitions on those reluctant to speak up.
With brainstorming in progress, Griffen watches as many as 200 ideas bubble up on his screen, as he scans for the 12 to 15 prominent themes. He projects a tentative list of those themes onto a big screen for all to see, and the group adds and subtracts ideas. Then it's back to the laptops. Participants now rank the ideas--"Tag 'em, move 'em, drop 'em"--on their screens. As soon as the last person hits the vote key, the results are instantaneous. The advantage: participants can spend time focusing on the top-rated ideas instead of wasting time shooting down the easy marks.
Organization: Domino's Pizza
Purpose of Meeting: To review an employee's aspirations, needs, and achievements
Tom Monaghan, founder and president of Domino's Pizza Inc., with headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., conducts individual job-planning and review (JP&R) meetings--each at least two hours long, and sometimes far longer--with his six executive vice-presidents, plus his chief of staff, once a month. "My first job planning and review with Tom Monaghan lasted eight hours," says Don Vlcek, who was hired in the late 1970s and ran the company's $600-million-a-year distribution subsidiary until 1994, when he left to form his own consulting firm in Plymouth, Mich. Now JP&R sessions are a key component of Vlcek's executive workshops.
Spending several hours a month with those you supervise may seem like Meeting Impossible. But don't stop reading. Other aspects of these reviews may strike a chord with you. For one thing, talk of salary is forbidden in a JP&R meeting. Even more interesting, the subordinate, not the superior, leads the discussion, moving point by point through 10 areas of a review form that the subordinate has filled out in advance.
Vlcek's JP&R meetings include a discussion of the subordinate's dream or mission (a chief financial officer, for instance, might strive for 100%-accurate profit-and-loss statements that are never a day late, with zero past due in collections or payments to suppliers), an analysis of his or her role (what the employee does on a regular basis), a discussion of the employee's needs (both professional and personal, or the need for new software or more employees), and a report on achievements (accomplishments of the last 30 days) and struggles (which provides an opportunity to admit screwups before the boss identifies them). The benefit to the boss: a framework to diplomatically address job concerns. He or she might say, "Instead of this, I think I'd like to see you doing more of that." The meeting closes with a review of the goals and an action plan to meet them. And 30 days later, you're back revisiting those goals. Over time, says Vlcek, you learn to ask yourself, Can it wait till the JP&R? "Eighty-five percent of the time, it can," he says.
But how do you find time for all the hours spent in JP&Rs? Vlcek tells of an executive who countered, "I have seven people reporting to me; I can't spend 21 hours a month doing this." Vlcek handed him a stopwatch and provided these instructions: "Keep it with you. When you're spending your time on something that's screwed up, on something that other people are paid to do and now you're doing, when you're reexplaining things, start this stopwatch. I guarantee you, over the course of a month you'll spend more than 21 hours--because you and your people haven't come to mental agreement on key issues." The executive called back five days later; he was already up to 25 hours on the stopwatch.
Follow the Dots
Organization: An educators' task force
Purpose of Meeting: To write a vision statement for a new-concept high school in two sessions
To get from ground zero to a developed concept in only two sessions lasting two and a half hours each: that was the task facing a dozen educators charged with drafting the vision statement for a new public high school, a magnet-style school to be located on the grounds of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens.
The group succeeded, thanks to a high-speed, high-performance meeting powered by--no kidding--index cards. These workaday note cards form the backbone of a meeting method called "compression planning." A low-tech equivalent of computer-mediated meetings, the technique is taught in workshops by the McNellis Co., in New Brighton, Pa. GM has used it. So has Habitat for Humanity. And so did facilitator Burton A. Cohen, to run the meetings that gave birth to the now three-year-old School for Environmental Studies, in Apple Valley, Minn. (Cohen is now a teacher and administrator at the school.)
One idea of this storyboarding system that could be adapted to almost any meeting: there's no clean slate at the start. On the first board is a statement announcing the purpose of the meeting. On other boards appear ground rules: "We listen to each other." "No speeches." "We address ideas, not people." A meeting leader need only point to a statement to remind attendees of the guidelines.
At the school meeting, two designated people recorded ideas on three-by-five cards. Another person stuck them on fabric-covered boards four feet square. A designated timer watched the clock, signaling the facilitator when it was time to move from the exploration or brainstorming phase of the meeting to the focusing phase, then to the concept board, and finally to the action board. In the focusing phase, ideas were winnowed out and categorized by colored dots. Everybody converged on the boards, selecting their favorite ideas by sticking a dot on the appropriate card. Consensus was easy to spot. Everything was out in the open, and all eyes were on the ideas.
John Grossmann is a writer based in Mountain Lakes, N.J.
What Do You Do?
Has your company found ways to make meetings work? Let us know by E-mail (email@example.com), regular mail (Inc., 38 Commercial Wharf, Boston, MA 02110, Attn: Meetings), or fax (617-248-8090).