Saturday, May 16, 2009

Apply the Golden Rule to Meeting Management

You open your inbox and there it is, staring you smugly in the face. Yes, it’s the invitation to the meeting which will occupy the last free hour in your day.

You had plans for that hour, carefully carved into 10-minute segments, including activities like noting the action items from your last 4 meetings, lunch at your desk, catching up on email, and taking big breaths in and out before your series of afternoon meetings.

Those plans are halted by the last-minute invitation to a meeting that you know you must attend though you’re not exactly sure why. The topic, “planning recap” gives you no indication of the actual meeting objective, nor do the names of the meeting organizer and attendees. Sound familiar? We’ve all received the ambiguous meeting invitation, and most of us have even sent one or two during the course of our careers.

Anyone in the consulting industry can attest to the time-is-money concept and can quickly quantify the billing cost of 10 people attending a meeting.

While we cannot control other people’s meeting etiquette, we can lead by example. To follow are some tips for effective meeting management – both for the organizer and for the participant.


Organizer - Think carefully about the purpose of the meeting and what you intend to achieve. Is a meeting really needed? Status updates, for example, can more easily be achieved via a shared wiki or spreadsheet, with meetings called only when urgent issues arise.

Participant - Consider the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting. Decide whether or not you really need to attend. If your organizational culture is meeting-happy, be judicious with your acceptances.


Organizer - Always include pertinent information about the meeting, including date/time/location, agenda, and intended outcome. The objective and agenda serve as a contract of sorts among the attendees, who are committing their time and energy to the meeting based on this information. With few exceptions, meetings should be scheduled at least a few days in advance.

Check schedules in advance and plan the meeting at a time when your critical attendees are available. Also, be aware of your invitees' time zones and do your best to schedule the meeting during office hours. The probability of acceptance will be much higher for meetings that do not occur in the middle of the night.
If you have to ask a few people to shuffle their scheudles in order to accommodate your meeitng, be prepared for them to decline. With the exception of only the most urgent meetings, "no" is an acceptable answer when someone has made a previous commitment to another meeting.

Select only participants who truly need to be in the meeting. Others can read the recap in the minutes. Proceed with caution when inviting “optional” attendees. This can be confusing to people.

Participant - If this information is missing from the meeting invitation, request it before deciding whether or not to attend the meeting. Once you commit to attending the meeting, do everything possible to ensure your attendance.

If you must back out of the meeting, notify the organizer as soon as possible and be prepared to make concessions in your calendar should the meeting need to be rescheduled to accommodate you. Do not reneg or ask for the meeting to be rescheduled simply because you’re busy. It is challenging for the organizer to schedule time that works for several parties at once, and impolite to ask others to reschedule due to one person's time management challenges.

Check with the meeting organizer before haphazardly forwarding the invitation to others. S/he may have been very deliberate in selecting participants.


Organizer - Communicate expected roles and responsibilities to attendees in advance of the meeting. These will vary with the scope of each meeting, but in general, aim to have a facilitator, time-keeper, scribe, and devil’s advocate. If you expect someone to present and/or to have completed certain actions before the meeting, engage them in advance with enough lead time to prepare properly.

Participant - Be sure of your role before the meeting. When uncertain, discuss this with the meeting organizer

Before the Meeting

Organizer - Test all logistics, including projectors and online meeting applications. Select a meeting room large enough to accommodate all participants. If your meeting is cancelled or postponed and you use a reservation system, be sure to cancel the meeting room and other resources.

Participant - Review the details of the meeting and prepare for your arrival. Will you participate live or remotely? Schedule enough time for travel. Locate the conference room in advance if needed.

During the Meeting

Organizer – Give everyone an opportunity to speak their minds, but stick to the agenda. Don’t put anyone on the spot in large meetings by asking them to commit to substantial projects.

Participant - Share your thoughts and ideas, but do not monopolize the meeting. Avoid sidetracking the conversation. Use the parking lot method to capture these ideas for follow-up discussion. Also, be sure to listen to others. When in brainstorming mode, do not rush to dispel another’s suggestion.

After the Meeting

Organizer - Send all participants (and cc others as needed) minutes from the meeting, which should include a recap of the discussion, major decisions reached, next steps and action items with dates and owners, and any unfinished business.

Participant - Read the minutes carefully and notify the organizer of any edits/updates. Be sure to follow through on any actions to which you committed in the meeting. Communicate relevant input to all attendees that you did not have an opportunity to share in the meeting.

You may be thinking that this is all well and good in theory but that it takes a great deal of time and effort to apply all of these tips, especially when your day is filled with meetings. You're right! And that confirms the need to be selective in the number of meetings you host. Refer to the first tip above, Is a meeting really needed?

In summary, think of the many things that you dislike about meetings. Your peers likely have the same pet peeves. When it comes to meeting etiquette and running effective meetings, the golden rule applies – do unto colleagues as you would have them do unto you.

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