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The Management Moment

Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings

Porter, Janet PhD; Baker, Edward L. MSc, MD, MPH

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Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: January 2006 - Volume 12 - Issue 1 - p 103-106
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Managers spend the majority of their time in meetings. One of the greatest challenges of busy managers is to control their daily calendar so that they can squeeze in as many meetings as possible. Indeed, it often seems that you cannot get anything done because of all the meetings all day long. Meetings are often seen as an impediment to getting work done rather than the mean to get work done. The successful manager must be able to organize, lead, and participate effectively in meetings to advance the organization's objectives. So, what is the secret to effective meetings? The principles of effective meetings are the same whether it is a fairly routine, decision-making meeting or a large, strategic meeting. Here we will discuss the critical competency of organizing and conducting effective meetings for managers.

First, the manager needs to ask whether a meeting is really the best means to actually get the work done. Many times meetings get scheduled without any clear purpose. We use scheduling a meeting as an excuse to avoid actually making a challenging decision or providing tough feedback. How many times have you heard in response to what is going to be done, “We’ll schedule a meeting,” as if the meeting was an outcome in and of itself? So, the first question to ask yourself before scheduling a meeting is whether a meeting is really necessary. Could you just send an e-mail or make a phone call or write a memo? Or, could you just make a decision and announce it? Do not use meetings as an excuse to delay making a decision or taking action.

Once you have decided a meeting really is necessary, the next question is to ask yourself what the purpose of the meeting is. The purpose of a meeting can be to inform, seek feedback, answer questions, organize, problem-solve, negotiate, or make a decision. Knowing why you have called a meeting and what constitutes success is essential. Every aspect of a meeting, from the invite list to the room location to the agenda to the length of the meeting, should be driven by a clear sense of the meeting's purpose. When working through the specifics of an all-day meeting for a public health agency recently, the health director and his staff were asked what the purpose of the meeting was. After 30 minutes of debate, it became clear that there was no consensus on why almost 30 people from the agency were planning on spending the majority of the day together. If the purpose is not clear to the organizers, it is certainly unlikely to be clear to the participants. And, there is nothing more frustrating than leaving a long meeting and wondering as you exit what the meeting was all about. Ask yourself, “When the meeting is over and we are thrilled with the success of the meeting, what will have happened? What constitutes a home run?” The best way to have clarity about a meeting's purpose is to actually record, to write down what constitutes success. This keeps everyone focused on the big picture. For example, you might note that “A good decision will be made whether to continue this program.”

The tendency is to inform participants about the meeting's topic but not about the meeting's purpose. Participants arrive at a meeting knowing from their calendars the topic. But topic and purpose are not the same. For example, knowing that the topic of a meeting is to discuss the Women, Infants, and Children program is not the same thing as understanding that the purpose of the meeting is to finalize a communication plan for recipients of the Women, Infants, and Children program. Thus, when sending an announcement for a meeting, remember to explain the purpose of the meeting.

Last year, we had a meeting scheduled with four partners on a project to decide on whether to continue to invest in developing and marketing a new leadership program. We were very clear that the objective of the meeting was to make a firm decision. The goal was not to persuade all the partners to proceed or to drop the new leadership program—just to get them to reach consensus on whether or not to proceed. With that clarity of purpose, the meeting was a big success in that the partners made a decision—in this case to cancel the program. Furthermore, in hindsight, the decision has not been rethought but instead subsequent developments have proven that the partners made a wise decision.

At the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, we routinely schedule briefing meetings a week before an educational retreat or conference to review logistics: “Who is going to handle the introductions? What readings or cases or books did each instructor want the participants to read? Who is going to explain the evaluation?” In this case, the clear purpose of the meeting is to organize and inform. The agenda for the upcoming retreat is always distributed to everyone so that staff members involved in the retreat understand their respective roles every day.

It should be noted that we also schedule two debriefings following every conference. The first debriefing happens as the participants are walking out the door. At that point, the purpose of the debriefing is to review the logistics, to find out what aspects went particularly well or need to be changed for the next time. A second debriefing occurs a few weeks later once we have evaluation results from the participants. For this latter debriefing, the focus is on the curriculum content and speaker comments and whether educational objectives are being met. Program aspects like sequencing and timing of the speakers and courses are the focus. Organizations holding routine meetings with a clear purpose can assure consistency and quality of services while advancing learning about best practices.

Third, the logistics of a meeting should be determined solely on the basis of what the meeting is intended to accomplish. Now, you are thinking about who should attend, where the meeting should be held, and what should be the length of the meeting. Managers typically will give thought to who should attend a meeting but spend much less time focusing on site or length. The only thought given to location is whether the room is convenient or big enough. And, for most meetings, these considerations are certainly enough. However, for significant meetings, the room arrangement must support the meeting purpose. There is nothing worse than arriving for a meeting with a room setup that does not work at all. Last year at the American Public Health Association meeting, a small national organization called its annual meeting for members. Participants arrived to find themselves in a room set up classroom style. With one small conference table at the front of the room, those arriving first huddled around the conference table, with stragglers arriving trying to pull up to the group. Those responsible for the meeting arrived late and did not bring agendas. Needless to say, the meeting not only did not accomplish the purpose but also left a lasting negative impression on participants.

And then there is the matter of a meeting's length. Too often, meetings are routinely scheduled for an hour when 15 minutes would suffice. Dr Bill Roper, the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, when speaking to the Public Health Leadership Institute scholars about the importance of time management, advocated for 15-minute meetings. He noted that shortening the time expectation of a meeting focuses participants on the task at hand and provides clarity of purpose. Afterward, some commented on how infeasible this seemed. So, maybe having 15-minute meetings seems awfully short but would not 30 minutes often work? So challenge yourself not to think about meetings in 1-hour increments and you could find a lot more time in your days.

Of course, using participants' precious time wisely should be a factor when considering a meeting's length. Preparing materials for distribution and reading prior to the meeting is one means to limit the meeting's length. It is common to be thoughtful about participants' time when they are volunteers or senior leaders in a community and to distribute an agenda item with related materials in advance. However, just as much thought should be given to internal meetings, as staff time is equally precious. It needs to be part of the culture to come well-prepared to a meeting and to be on time. This will only happen if managers model that behavior by organizing meetings thoughtfully and coming well-prepared themselves.

Now we get to organizing the agenda for the meeting. Of course, for many it would be a step forward just to have an agenda at all. Every meeting agenda should start and end the same way. The first item on the agenda should always be the meeting's purpose. And the last item should always be a summary of the meeting and stating the next steps. The principles of primacy and recency apply to meetings. What these basic psychological principles mean is that people will remember the first few minutes of a meeting and the last few meetings. We do not tend to remember much in between—unless, of course, there is an altercation or controversy. Thus, make those the clearest portion of the meeting. Artful agenda management means thinking through what the topics will be, how much time will be spent on each topic, the sequence of the topics, and who will present or lead each topic. Meetings are a vital tool in project management. And keeping track of what happens in those meetings is an important aspect of moving a project along. Just as GANTT charts and budgets are essential to keep a project on track, keeping minutes helps to record decisions and project progress. Thus, right after introducing the purpose of the meeting, the next agenda item for major meetings is to review and approve the minutes. The secret to keeping good minutes is to prepare them immediately after the meeting—when the discussion is still fresh in your mind. Recall decays over time, and it becomes really hard to remember what happened in a meeting and what was decided even a few days afterward. That is why minutes are such an important tool—they record commitments and keep a project on track.

Naturally, the items on a meeting's agenda should be in a logical sequence—building upon one another. A common mistake is to try to accomplish too much in some meetings and then time management becomes a problem. Because oftentimes the purpose of a meeting is discussion and participative decision making, adequate time must be scheduled for that processing by the participants. If it seems before a meeting that there is too much on the agenda, there is. That is the time to review all the agenda items and then to remove those that are not central to the agency's goals.

Ideally, there should be a relationship between a public health agency's strategic goals for the year and meeting topics. Recently, a public health agency asked for help because it was not making progress toward its goals. It was easy to see why. When agendas for its major meetings were reviewed, it was clear that the agency was spending all its time on daily operational issues but no time on strategic issues or goals. And, in this instance, there was no apparent relationship between how the leadership and staff were spending their time together in meetings and what they had committed to accomplish in their strategic goals. One organization in Texas arranged agendas for all their major meetings around its strategic goals. Nothing was placed on an agenda unless it supported a strategic goal for the organization.

Time is the major resource managers deploy. If the time spent in meetings is used for nonimportant items, then the manager is literally spending the agency's money unwisely. It is no different than purchasing supplies frivolously.

At the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, we keep a “We Would be Proud” list prominently displayed. The staff write the Proud list on the basis of what they want to accomplish in the next year. We try to keep the list prominently displayed and to revisit the list to recognize and celebrate the key accomplishments. This year we had staff sign up or autograph the list as a public display of commitment to the goals.

So, now it is the time for the meeting, the right participants are in attendance, they have been sent relevant materials in advance, and you have copies of the agenda in front of everyone. Now it is up to the skillful manager to conduct the meeting to accomplish the original purpose. First, make sure introductions are made. Second, clarify the purpose of the meeting. Answer any questions about the meeting's purpose. Now the trick is to manage the meeting so that all the agenda items are discussed and decisions made. Skillful facilitators of meetings make sure discussions are balanced, the meeting moves along and is focused on the overall goal of the meeting. One manager was notorious for scheduling three or four major agenda items for a meeting and never getting to the last items because he did not keep the meeting moving along. Putting an item on the agenda is really a form of a commitment between the meeting's organizer and the participants. It is an implicit agreement that the participants will get to all the items on the agenda. If you view each agenda item as a promise, a sort of contract with the participants that all those items will be discussed, then you are more likely to work to assure that everything on the agenda gets a fair hearing.

Finally, the skillful facilitator summarizes what has been discussed. And explains next steps. The most common mistake made in meeting management is to fail to allow for enough time to summarize and conclude the meeting. Recapping what has just happened in the meeting and restating the meeting's purpose and decisions is the role of the meeting's organizer.

Being able to organize and conduct meetings effectively just may be the most important competency of all. After all, how you spend your days adds up to how you spend your years. And how you spend your hours every day is oftentimes in meetings. It is up to leaders and managers to make sure that time is well spent.

For more information about the North Carolina Institute for Public Health, go to http://www.sph.unc.edu/nciph.

Top 10 Secrets to Having an Effective Meeting

  1. Have a clear purpose.
  2. Invite the right people.
  3. Arrange a convenient location and an appropriate room.
  4. Schedule only the amount of time that you really need.
  5. Organize the agenda to meet the meeting's purpose.
  6. Distribute documents and key documents in advance.
  7. Conduct the meeting to keep it on schedule and on task.
  8. State the purpose of the meeting at the beginning.
  9. Summarize the meeting and explain next steps.
  10. Keep and distribute minutes.
© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.