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Escape From Meeting Hell
 

It's time for another soul-sapping, oxygen-depriving, time-wasting, mind-numbing company meeting. Or is it? We offer 15 clever solutions to the problems with most meetings.
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Quick show of hands: Who hates meetings?

So that's most of you. It's not surprising. Workers across this land are gripped by soul-deadening angst as they shuffle down the hall every Wednesday at 3:30 to go review "housekeeping issues." Days, weeks, months, years of our lives are slipping away in stuffy, overcrowded conference rooms and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Michael Doyle and David Straus, authors of the 1976 classic How to Make Meetings Work, famously claimed that there were 11 million meetings in the U.S. every day, and that executives spent 50% of their time in them. And for what? Doyle and Straus have been in print for 28 years, and while meetings are up to 25 million a day, according to Doyle, they generally don't work. They bring down morale and blow holes in the workday, and pitifully few constructive ideas come out of them--which, of course, means that yet another round of meetings is called....

Take into account the bottom line, and the picture is even grimmer. For all the value they're getting from meetings, some companies might as well open the windows and throw cash to the breeze--at least it would save time. "Meetings should be a precious resource, but they're treated like a necessary evil," says social psychologist Kenneth Sole, who runs Sole & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in organizational behavior. Sole, who has worked with diverse clients that include Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, NASA, Apple, and the United Nations, often asks executives to imagine a meeting with 15 of their top-level people. On the wall at this imaginary meeting is a giant meter with a running total of both the costs of the wages of those assembled and the revenue they aren't bringing in while they're languishing in a conference room. It's a sobering exercise.

Fortunately, there is good news--like Good News, the required 15-minute Monday-morning gathering at American Megacom, a communications consultancy in Livonia, Mich. CEO Jane Sydlowski shares the love through positive updates about what employees have accomplished in sales, client satisfaction, and public relations. "They know how to make you blush," says Sean Stevens, a sales specialist at the firm. "The ego stroking can get a little nauseating, but I know I can rely on those people because of the confidence they get knowing how they are helping the business."

That's just one example of a company fighting to break the chains of mediocrity. There are more. This may astound you, but companies everywhere are holding meetings, week in and week out, that are successful and productive and that employees look forward to. Creative minds are solving the problems that have plagued conference rooms since the dawn of the regularly scheduled postlunch get-together. Below you'll see how.

"I really don't know how to run a meeting"

Hire--or create--a specialist

Entrepreneurs want their employees to be the best at what they do, whether it's in accounting, sales, or restocking the soda machine. But little thought is given to who is most qualified to take charge of hours upon hours of company time. "There is an art to running meetings as a forum for shared problem solving," says Anne Donnellon, professor of management at Babson College and author of Team Talk: The Power of Language in Team Dynamics. "So why wouldn't you send someone to get training and make quality facilitation a primary function of an internal employee?"

That someone could well be the boss. By default, managers run meetings, and many business owners assume that they know what they're doing--even if the entire company disagrees. Local consulting firms and business schools, and occasionally bookstores and libraries, offer improvement courses.

"Everyone slumps down and zones out"

Stand up for yourself

Nobody likes meetings; nobody likes standing for long periods of time. Ergo, to meet on the feet should keep things moving along. It's the way Dan Cunningham, CEO of Dan's Chocolates in Braintree, Mass., likes it, so he holds standing meetings a couple of times a month, even when somebody from outside the office is involved. Cunningham wants these meetings focused on immediate problems, which is nicely emphasized by the lack of physical comfort. "Variables on a problem constantly change," says Cunningham. "We would rather do triage right over the patient then sit down and put something together that we'll just end up revisiting in a few days."

Gary Berman, CEO of Greyhawk North America, a construction management and consulting firm in Woodbury, N.Y., is a former stander--and don't think he won't go back to it. He also reserves the right to push meetings to 5 p.m. on Friday, which ensures that employees don't hold court with their long-winded war stories. The natural itch to start the weekend drives people to the heart of the matter; they figure out what needs to be done and go home.

"We're slaves to the agenda"

Let it flow

An agenda can be a blueprint, but it should never be the tool that sets the discourse. Idea generation should be more important than adhering to arbitrary agenda bullet points. That's why Ryan Simons, CEO of Print-Tech, a commercial printing and promotional product outfit in Madison, Wis., rarely lets anyone else see what is on his agenda, and why he monitors strategy meetings with a great deal of elasticity, unafraid to change course on the fly. If bullet point A flows to bullet point C, he's happy to skip B and save it for the following week--better that than encroaching on the living, breathing, developing organism. "There's no magic solution, but it's a constantly changing dynamic," says Simons. "I like to mix it up to see what happens." Another trick he uses to shake out the doldrums is to switch a couple of the attendees in regular meetings, throwing the head of one division (IT perhaps?) into another (marketing?) division's meeting, or simply shrinking the roll call--any combination to keep the voices in the room fresh and the discussions freewheeling and thought-provoking.

"It's just an information dump"

Don't hire the illiterate

If you bring people together strictly to update them on sales numbers, software upgrades, vacation-day policies, and/or baby-pool standings, you get what you stray for. "The only rational defense to interrupt talented people with an information dump is if your employees can't read," says Kenneth Sole. "These are the meetings that induce hypnosis." Meetings are never the place to heap employees with material that they could read via the electronic mailing system. Meetings should be about attacking problems, or else they're going to be about boring employees.

Kevin Grauman, CEO of the Outsource Group, a Walnut Creek, Calif., company that administers outsourced HR functions (and was formerly the top company in the Inc. 500), adheres to the "no information dump" policy. Every gathering is a strategic session to share ideas, get feedback, and distill the overall perspectives of the company. "Employees should be empowered to solve problems and take the risk inherent in participation and not be spoon-fed answers," Grauman says emphatically.

"I've got a room full of yes men and yes women"

Make your bobbleheads engage

If all you want to see is a smiling face in complete agreement with your mandates, hang a mirror in the office. John G. Miller, author of the QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, has monitored some 10,000 hours of meetings, workshops, and training sessions, and he's concluded that a room full of nodding yes men and yes women wastes everyone's time. Miller has a few basic exercises to combat bobblehead tendencies: (1) Plant seeds by sending out a question of the week prior to the meeting so that people will come in with thoughts that they can be expected to share; (2) Throw out a problem and break up employees into groups of two or three for 10 minutes, and then have them report their ideas. A short shift into teams changes the dynamic of the room, both because employees are usually more comfortable talking to peers and because it cuts down on lecturing; and (3) Praise those who speak up and participate. If managers reward only the completion of projects, there is no acknowledgment of the work that's done within meetings.

Stuart Levine, a strategic consultant, author of The Six Fundamentals of Success, and a CEO with 25 employees of his own, is known to hand out Tootsie Roll Pops on the spot for intriguing thoughts. It's a modest but effective little gimmick. "Recognizing contributions gets the intellectual capital flowing and brings the more introverted off the bench," says Levine.

"We always peter out"

Leave the room like George Costanza

In a classic Seinfeld, George Costanza offers an astute insight into giving meetings a needed shot of flair and excitement. George took the old comic saw of "Always leave them wanting more" and began exiting meetings the moment after he threw out a well-received witticism. Costanza wouldn't seem to be the gold standard for productivity, but in this case he's in step with the eggheads. John Clemens and Scott Dalrymple, professors of management at Hartwick College and co-authors of Time Mastery (due out this summer), spent two years researching effective leadership for their book about using time as a strategic tool. They strongly encourage leaders to seize the big moment of a meeting. The Wednesday 3 p.m. meeting might have its climax at 3:17, so cut it off on a high. There's no need for a denouement--this is a meeting, not a novel, and besides, there'll be another one next week. Clemens says that to truly own the room, managers have to develop a sixth sense as to when a major moment is at hand so that employees walk out jazzed up--and never discount the natural high of exiting a meeting early.

"This conference room puts me to sleep"

Get out more

Who made up the rule that all meetings have to be held inside the same four drab walls? Greg James, CEO of consumer software company Topics Entertainment, considers his off-site meetings a secret weapon, which is why two or three times a month he takes his employees on reconnaissance missions at the mall. They grab some nosh at the food court and then undertake a thorough examination of the software departments of stores all in and around the mall. They analyze packaging, pricing, endcap placement, and markdowns, and check out new products from the competition. They've also been able to identify nontraditional selling arenas where they might make headway, such as when they realized Topics could place needlepoint software at the arts and crafts chain Michaels. "Our meetings are a form of reverse engineering," says James. "We make products retailers want, instead of we made it, you buy it." James is such a fan of lunch-hour mall trolling that he recently moved the company closer to a major Seattle-area shopping center.

As CEO of Planet Tan, Tony Hartl oversees eight big tanning clubs in greater Dallas. He thinks fresh air equals fresh ideas, so he regularly takes his top people out for what he calls "BOB"--Business on the Boat. Even when he holds meetings in-house, Hartl tries to make employees feel like they're somewhere else. Planet Tan's monthly all-day strategy sessions kick off with a "circle meeting" in a dark room, with a candle in the middle and bean bag chairs on the floor, all meant to ensure employees are comfortable and feel safe being open and honest. "It sounds strange," says Hartl, "but it's a good way to get reclusive people to open up. Most organizations only get bodies, but we get hearts and minds."

"I already know what we have to do today"

Look to the future

Raymond Sanchez, CEO of Security Mortgage Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., loathes meetings because they are so often used to "rehash the hash that's already been hashed." If this Yogi Berra-esque complaint sounds typical, John Clemens and Scott Dalrymple are on your squad. They feel that entirely too many meetings are steeped in the past and present, rather than looking to the future. Their research found that successful managers are forward-thinking in meetings, and also that many leaders direct their attention (and the attention of others) to the future a lot less than they might think. Clemens and Dalrymple came up with a simple exercise, called VerbAudit, that shows whether the language used in a meeting is primarily focused on what's happening today--which is counterproductive for tomorrow--or on what will happen next. The next time you run a meeting, tape and transcribe it. Circle all the verbs in the transcription. See how many of the verbs, particularly your own, are in past tense, how many in present, and how many in future. You may be surprised to learn that your own words are betraying the very vision for the future that you want to convey.

"It's hard to keep everyone's attention"

Lay out some cash

It's nice to believe employees understand that meetings are essential to the heart of the company and are always looking for ways to improve, but putting a little green on the table always helps. Jay Steinfeld, CEO of Houston's Blinds.com, doles out $50 on the spot for good, original ideas (he's the arbiter), creating, in essence, a living suggestion box. "Most employers resist change, but we encourage it," says Steinfeld. One employee threw out a suggestion that made a giant difference and increased the amount of free samples sent out by 25%--and it cost the company the price of dinner and a movie. Gil Bonwitt, president of New Horizons Computer Learning Center of Miami, livens up his monthly all-departments meeting with a $100 giveaway to an employee who has gone "above and beyond" his or her regular duties in the previous month. Anyone can be nominated, and after Bonwitt reads aloud the names of each nominee and describes his or her contributions, a name is selected at random for a C-note. "It went from being a little dorky to great positive energy," says Bonwitt, "and most importantly, everyone looks forward to the meetings."

"I'm so bored I'm cutting myself with a plastic fork"

Make 'em laugh

Sheldon Arora, CEO of Esoftsolutions, an IT systems company in Plano, Texas, does not want gloomy meetings. So the last person into the room at the monthly companywide meeting has to tell a joke. That sets a relaxed tone and also gets seats filled on time.

Then, at the end of the meeting, Arora settles up on his wagers with employees. A year ago, at a company happy hour, Arora overheard a few younger sales folks bragging about the numbers they were going to hit, so he proposed a little bet. If they hit the targets, dinner at a Dallas restaurant was on him; if they didn't, they'd go up in front of the next meeting to perform a song. They ended up singing Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" on company time, and since then the bets have become a staple that the employees love. Things don't always go the CEO's way, either. One lost bet reduced Arora to carting around a napkin and tray while serving coffee as the butler for a day. "I'm willing to make a fool of myself," says Arora, "because the return on investment is so high."

"This meeting has all the excitement of sitting in traffic"

Spark up a confrontation

Name-calling and fisticuffs should be off-limits in the conference room, but confrontation should be stoked and allowed to breathe. "Conflict is the spark of creativity," says John G. Miller. If employees keep quiet because they fear what they say will come back to haunt them or unconsciously ask themselves whether they'll be punished for challenging the status quo, then no revolutionary ideas will come out of the meeting. It's a good thing when people are fired up and have strong opinions about the direction of the business; it means they care.

Alex Lekas, a vice president at Web hosting and servicing company Advanced Internet Technologies in Fayetteville, N.C., says his company thrives on confrontational communication. Now, Army guys founded AIT, so maybe verbal combat is less intimidating to them, but all companies should inspire and foster passion. "We encourage skepticism, because every project is going to have proponents and opponents," says Lekas. "We want honest discussions and vigorous arguments."

"No one retains a thing"

Let's review

Meetings frequently accelerate in the latter stages because everyone wants out. But a quick recap at the end can go a long way toward ensuring that everyone is on the same page. Pamela Schindler, director of the Center for Applied Management at Wittenberg University, has been researching how to make meetings an efficient "process of work" for years. She believes that meetings should have a clear outcome that is recapped at the end in a five-minute synthesis report. If you want everyone to walk out knowing exactly what they're supposed to do, don't leave without "thinking through the meeting," as Schindler says, by revisiting the major points. And Schindler says that clarifying the potential outcomes, the next steps, and who is responsible for each step has another upside: "The real joy of synthesis is realizing how many meetings you won't need."

"We've been having the same weekly meeting since the Carter administration"

Continually take your company's pulse

Nietzsche claimed that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but that doesn't explain the slow death of attending the same depressing weekly meeting year after year after year. However, a company can be quickly resurrected through an analysis of what's working and ditching what isn't. Sean McLaughlin, CEO of Eze Castle Software, a Boston-based company that makes software for investment management, constantly reevaluates the effectiveness of his company's meetings. His reassessments have led to decisions such as wiping out all meetings on Monday. McLaughlin realized his employees needed a clean, unfettered day to coalesce their thoughts, get organized, and plan for the week, and that his type-A go-getters were getting "Sunday fever" and preparing for Monday instead of relaxing or hanging out with their kids.

Eze Castle also uses what it calls a "barn cat," a roving problem-solver whose functions include meeting watchdog, dropping in randomly to ensure that meetings are productive and not spreading malaise. McLaughlin thinks it's critical to evaluate how meetings are working because they're a microcosm of the company and a definer of culture. He's not afraid of change--he says that in a couple of years, Eze Castle Software might have a completely different outlook on how meetings should be run.

"I don't have time to read this article"

Learn, and live by, the golden rule

Don't hold meetings for meetings' sake. Amen.

Meeting adjourned.

Sidebar: And if nothing's working? More meetings!

Meetings can be likened to an engine that drives a company forward and thus needs the occasional tune-up. Unless, of course, said company can't get started and never even leaves the driveway, in which case a total overhaul is necessary. And how should a manager fix a dead, nonstarting engine? Pat Lencioni suggests a lot more meetings.

Lencioni, CEO of the management consulting firm the Table Group and author of the recently published Death by Meeting, says that the main reason for unproductive and inefficient meetings is the attempt to make them everything to everybody. Lencioni refers to "meeting stew," a bad mix of disparate elements such as monthly tactical goals, administrative details, and big-picture issues, all of them addressed in a preordained chunk of time. "It's a case of all the ingredients tasting good, but thrown together it tastes terrible," says Lencioni. "And human beings aren't smart enough to shift context quickly." Without explicit directives, meetings ramble, managers babble, eyes roll back in heads, and the chances for success are shot.

Lencioni suggests having distinct types of meetings. A given company's lineup might include a five-minute daily check-in strictly for immediate concerns and to ensure nothing falls through the cracks; a weekly tactical that includes a one-minute quick hit of priorities for each person, followed by a progress review and an agenda-setting for the week ahead; and a longer monthly strategic for executives to delve into a couple of topics without the restraint of deadlines. If that sounds like a lot of time in meetings, think of how many e-mail strings and cubicle drop-ins could be avoided by means of a mere 300 seconds a day of clearing up issues.

Lencioni doesn't want to hear that e-mail and IM make it acceptable to skip meetings. "A table is still the best piece of technology to sit around and figure out how things work," he insists. Hence, the Table Group.

Mike Maddock, president of the Chicago advertising agency Maddock Douglas, is a believer. In addition to a mandatory five-minute executive daily (which requires calling in from the road), the company blocks off six hours on Mondays and holds meetings back-to-back-to-back. They start with a town-hall gathering, followed by tightly scheduled breakout meetings meant to address weekly goals and get different departments in sync. Maddock feels this approach has eliminated a lot of the redundant, ad hoc "hey, you got a minute?" conversations that break up the work processes much more than regularly scheduled programming. "Giving Monday morning over to hammering out issues is an investment in the rest of the week," he says. "Through fewer interruptions, we gain a lot of that time back."

Patrick J. Sauer is a staff writer.

Last updated: May 1, 2004




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