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Working hard or hardly working? 8 steps to hold productive meetings

August 28th, 2014

by Darlene A. Cunha

Meetings are an inevitable part of every organization, but broken meetings are bad for business. Meetings can lead to productivity or frustration. Unfortunately, many of the meetings we attend leave us feeling like hamsters on a wheel playing catch up with the work we left behind.

As healthcare continues to evolve, I find meetings take an increasing number of hours in the workday, and yet most employees regard them as a waste of time. In a 2012 survey conducted by Salary.com, U.S. professionals ranked meetings as the No. 1 office productivity killer. Bad meetings waste time, squash employee engagement and get in the way of what your organization's success.

Ask yourself how many meetings you attended, either in person or virtually, and left the meeting feeling it was a waste of time? I can't tell you the number of times I disengaged from meetings because it was unorganized, and thus became preoccupied with the mountain of work I had on my desk.

Recently I attended a meeting that dragged on and on. Everyone sat fiddling with his or her smartphone, and "Joe" from accounting hijacked the meeting for his own agenda. Almost everyone in the room was wondering the same thing: Why am I even here?

This prompted me to revisit this topic.

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Whether you lead a meeting or attend one, the person assigned to run the meeting has a job to do: Engage the attendees and get results. Running a meeting is a skill most of us weren't trained in, but rather inherit as part of our role within the organization. However, there are ways to run effective, efficient meetings that leave employees feeling energized and excited about their work.

Here are some tips from some of the most respected individuals in the industry: Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Holly Green, CEO of Architect of Pause at The Human Factor Inc. I personally found them extremely helpful:

  1. Make your objective clear. Have a specific and defined purpose. Before you send that calendar invite, ask yourself: What are my objectives? What do I want to accomplish? Standing meetings with an unclear purpose, such as status updates, are rarely a good use of time. Remember, don't jump to solutions out of the gate, but rather enlist your teams' input.
    Plan your meeting by asking questions such as these:
    What will make this meeting a success? What decisions will we make?
    How will we get all the input we need?
    Whose input is most critical/ important?
  2. Invitee important stakeholders. Take time to think about who really needs to be there. For example, if you announce a change, invite the people who are affected by the change. If you want to solve a problem, invite the people who are good sources of information for a solution. When people feel the discussion/topic isn't relevant to them, or they are not the ones with the skills or expertise to be of assistance, they view their attendance at the meeting as a waste of time.
  3. Stick to the allotted time frame and agenda. Create an agenda that lays out everything you plan to cover in the meeting, along with a timeline that allots a certain number of minutes to each item, and email it to people in advance. Then keep your audience focused.
    If one agenda item becomes the focus, ask yourself if it is the crux to your meeting and whether you need to stick with it, or gather a smaller group at a later time to flush out the key points.
  4. Maintain control. Nothing derails a meeting faster than one person talking more than his or her fair share. If someone is monopolizing the conversation, call him out. For example: Say, "We appreciate your contributions, but now we need input from others before making a decision." Establishing ground rules early on creates a framework and respect for how your group will function.
  5. Consider alternatives. Challenge assumptions by asking: What underlying attitudes, beliefs or thoughts are causing us to see this as the best or only solution. Solicit alternative viewpoints. "It sounds like we're all in agreement on the solution here. I'm wondering if anyone sees it differently." Ask everyone's opinion.
  6. Start on time, end on time. If you have a reputation as someone who starts and ends promptly, it's amazing how many colleagues will make every effort to attend your meetings. People appreciate it when you understand that their time is valuable. Note: Meetings should not last longer than 60 minutes. An hour is generally the longest time workers can remain truly engaged.
  7. Ban technology. I know, what you're thinking, but the reality is technology is great in the right forum. If you allow iPads, laptops or Smart phones into your meeting, your attendees won't focus on the meeting or contribute to it. Instead, they'll email, surf the Web or attend to other business. You need them to focus.
  8. Follow up. Summarize the key points and takeaways from the meeting. It's quite common for people to come away from the same meeting with very different interpretations of what went on. To reduce this risk, send a summary highlighting what was accomplished to all who attended within 24 hours after the meeting. Document the responsibilities given, tasks delegated, and any assigned deadlines. That way, everyone will be on the same page.

Finally, Slow down enough in meetings to get it right. Meetings truly can be valuable and productive. You just have to take the steps to make them that way.

Darlene A. Cunha, R.N., is senior healthcare executive, who focuses on population health management and the patient caregiver experience.

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