2004, Vol. 1, No. 2
Making Meetings Work:
Simple Guidelines for Solid Gains
S. O'Dea ,
Doctor of Ministry Coordinator and Visiting Professor
of Practical Theology
of God Theological Seminary
Walk into an office or break room and ask your coworkers
if they want to attend another meeting today. Poll the
leaders in your organization for the number one thing
they would reduce or eliminate from their weekly schedules.
Meetings will make the top three (if not the first spot)
every time. Better yet, look in a mirror and watch the
visual change in your own countenance as you imagine
life with fewer meetings.
The subject of meetings drops the emotional barometer
of people in all kinds of workplaces. People say things
like, “If I never had to attend another staff meeting,
it would be too soon”(from a staff pastor) or “Our
meetings are hellacious” (from a missionary). Articles
and books on the subject carry titles such as I Hate
Meetings, Death by Meeting, and “Escape
from Meeting Hell.” Clearly, meetings do not rank
among people’s favorite things!
Do you want to hear the good news or bad news? First
the bad: in this life at least, meetings you will have
with you always. But do not overlook the good news: meetings can be
improved. This essential organizational function can
be retooled to provide the connectivity, synergy and
effective decision-making necessary to accelerate momentum.
The most common causes for unsuccessful meetings are
lack of notification, lack of preparation, no agenda
or hidden agendas, the wrong people in attendance, lack
of control or influence in meetings and political pressure.1 Leaders who pay attention to cost, context, communication,
content, conflict and creativity will see significant
improvement in the meetings themselves and in the morale
of the people in those meetings.
Count the Cost
What would happen if your company instituted a one-year
ban on meetings? Despite the incredible appeal
and the predictable cheers, authors Whitney and Giovagnoli
suggest that the assumption that business could be
conducted without meetings ought to be challenged.2
“Meetings are the focal point for interaction
in an organization. Meetings bring together people from
different parts of the organization to communicate, allocate
work, resolve disputes, and make decisions.”3 Purposeful
meetings have value.
Purpose is the defining factor. Stephen Baker’s
tongue-in-cheek guide I Hate Meetings lists the
following purposes for meetings: saying hello to colleagues
you haven’t seen since yesterday, telling jokes,
making speeches, looking important, posing as a leader,
complaining, displaying expertise on subjects you know
nothing about and delegating responsibilities.4 Moving
away from these realities requires a leader who knows
what he or she wants from the meeting before calling
it. This knowledge in no way implies specific answers,
decisions or direction. Rather, the leader must be able
to ask the question that will lead to the answer or at
least to the next question on the path to that answer.
Discovering the answer justifies the cost.
Meetings cost an enormous amount of money. When one
considers that more than 25 million are held in the United
States each day,5 the sum total of the participants’ salaries
boggles the mind. Holding meetings out of habit or calendar
obligation ought to be punishable by a fine equivalent
to the cost of the meeting. Even better, see the value
of the meeting and ensure its worth before scheduling.
Craft the Context
In his book Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni
identifies “meeting stew” as the single greatest
structural problem.6 In an attempt to save time, leaders
tend to dump every issue into one big staff meeting that
accomplishes little except wasting time. Lencioni contends
that more meetings, not less, are the answer, and context—the
right issue in the right kind of meeting—is critical.
The work begins by differentiating between kinds of
issues. Social (“Welcome back from your trip.”),
logistical (“I’m out of the office on Friday.”),
tactical (“How are we going to respond to the boss’ request?”),
strategic (“What should our new program look like?”),
and evaluative (“How can this team be more effective?”)
items comprise the most common types. Each has different
time requirements and levels of importance.
Tactical and strategic items present
the greatest difficulty of separation. Often, tactical
decisions prompt strategic discussions. Without the time
or preparation to handle a strategic matter, though,
most of the effort given to the subject will be wasted.
One source encourages identification of agenda items
as either barking dogs (important and urgent items),
nonbarking dogs (items of strategic importance but not
urgent), or sleeping dogs (the things no one is willing
to talk about, but it is difficult to proceed unless
they are addressed).7 First deal with the barking dogs
in a limited amount of time; then discuss the nonbarking
dogs. Sleeping dogs can be brought up once the group
begins making progress and gains confidence.
Articulate a meeting strategy that suits your team and
its purposes. Variations may include frequency, location,
medium and time allotted. Some possibilities include:
- Prayer. Does your team need
more significant prayer team than the perfunctory opening
or closing prayer at your weekly staff meetings? Consider
making prayer a separate, weekly meeting.
- Check-in. Many organizations
use a daily or weekly 5- to 15-minute meeting to
update one another on their progress on tasks, priorities
for the week, travel plans, and even to praise team
members publicly for excellent work. The check-in can
be a stand-up meeting (no sitting, keep things brief)
or even an email.
- Tactical. Dealing with
the urgent and/or important requires constant attention.
The weekly tactical should be fast-moving and
- Strategic. Equally as important as the tactical,
but often overlooked until urgency pushes them
to the forefront, strategic meetings should be given
a significant window of time (2-3 hours) to make great
gains in organizational progress.
- Off-Site. Rather than waiting
for an annual (after-the-fact) review, schedule quarterly
off-site meetings to consider larger strategic issues,
organizational health and personnel assessments. If tactical
issues must be considered, deal with them first and limit
discussion to no more than one quarter of the scheduled
Regardless of which types of meetings you choose, allow
for ad hoc meetings as needed, but give them the appropriate
context as well.
Clarify the Communication
In a study of meetings, their most frequent purpose
was to communicate information.8 Why? Do organizations
hire illiterate people? “The only rational defense
to interrupt talented people with an information dump
is if your employees can’t read.”9 Since
this is not likely the case, the very concept of communication
in meetings must be clarified.
Communication is essential for good meetings. Good communication
gets the right people to the meeting, because they have
been notified of the date, time, place and purpose. More
important, good communication garners the necessary preparation—pertinent
information for informed decision-making—prior
to the meeting. This quality set-up increases the probability
of productivity, and productive meetings send a powerful
message to every participant in the organization.
Contain the Content
Good communication facilitates the flow of a meeting.
Excellent meetings, as previously mentioned, begin with
purpose. That purpose should be easily observed in the
agenda. Opinions vary as to the necessity of the agenda.
Some see it as an essential for order and accomplishment;
others advocate a fluid or spontaneous agenda for maximum
effectiveness. Consider the focus of the meeting. Tactical
settings accommodate an open agenda more easily than
strategic discussions that may be more dependent on previous
research. Regardless of whether it is published before
the gathering or created in the opening moments, allow
the agenda to serve as not only a guide for discussion,
but also a promise to participants.
While an agenda can be helpful in keeping a meeting
on track, it cannot accomplish the difficult task alone.
Limit the number of people invited to the meeting. Twelve
or less is a meeting; more than twelve is an assembly.
Leaders must move the discussion along, cut off ramblers
with firmness and tact and discern when a rabbit is worth
chasing. Do not be afraid to be time-conscious in leading
a meeting. This does not require a stopwatch, but do
try to allow appropriate amounts of time for each agenda
item. Trying to do justice to three items in the last
five minutes of the meeting frustrates everyone involved,
even if they contributed to the inequity.
One excellent way to bring a meeting in under the time
budget is to exit on a high note (also known as pulling
a George Costanza). If the meeting hits a climax fifteen
minutes in, cut it off on a high. There will always be
another meeting, and you will gain the emotional capital
of accomplishment and the natural high of exiting a meeting
early—both worthy coups in themselves.10
Control the Conflict
Conflict can single-handedly kill or cinch the success
of a meeting. Leaders want to stop negative conflict
and stir the positive. Negative conflict erupts from
directly criticizing others’ positions or indirectly
serving them with a verbal slash (e.g., “We’d
have to be crazy to do that!”). Such comments serve
only to destroy relationships and paralyze any further
productive contribution that person might make later
in the meeting.11
Positive conflict, on the other hand, produces a high-yield
harvest of stronger relationships, open discussion, fewer
politics, optimal brainstorming and complete buy-in.
Plus, it is fun! Lencioni instructs leaders to ensure
interest in meetings by clearly defining the purpose
or problem, then drawing all attendees into full participation.12 Compliment participants when they engage in meaningful
conflict. Encourage reluctant silent types to weigh in
with their thoughts. What may start with a certain level
of discomfort will develop into a healthy practice.
Capture the Creativity
Even if you successfully employ each of the previous
directives, your meeting can still fall short of its
full potential. People do not have time to rehash scenarios
previously explored, nor can they revisit the dynamic
synergy of a particular discussion. You have to capture
the good stuff! Start with these simple steps:
- Stir creativity with a forward focus.13 Meetings
entrenched in the past and present do not anticipate
a preferable future, let alone the enthusiasm and
inspiration needed to get there.
- Close with a quick summary. Recap the decisions
reached, action steps required and assignments made.
This communication step takes little time and safeguards
- Take good minutes. In a small meeting, the leader
should keep the minutes. Write them as soon as possible,
be brief and stick to the important facts.14
Do You Have the Discipline?
“Most people hate meetings with a passion reserved
for mosquitoes and used-car salespeople.”15 Meetings
cannot be eliminated altogether, but bad meetings, along
with the bad attitudes toward them, can be. The question
of change rests on the leader’s desk. Do you have
the discipline to bring real transformation to this organizational
necessity? Simple adjustments can produce rich rewards,
not the least of which may be a new outlook on the event
previously consigned to the devil’s domain!
L. Creighton and James W.R. Adams, Cyber Meeting:
How to Link People and Technology in Your Organization (New
York: AMACOM, 1998), 27.
Whitney and Melissa Geovagnoli, 75 Cage-Rattling
Questions to Change the Way You Work (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1997), 135.
and Adams, 13.
Baker, I Hate Meetings (New York: Macmillan,
5. Patrick J. Sauer, “Escape from Meeting Hell,” Inc. (May
downloaded 7-29-04, 1.
6. Patrick Lencioni, Death
by Meeting (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2004), 235.
7. Rick Ross and Charlotte Roberts, “Barking and
Nonbarking Dogs: The Strategic Practice Field,” in The
Dance of Change by Peter Senge, et. al. (New York:
Currency Doubleday, 1999), 88.
8. Creighton and Adams, 25.
Sole, quoted by Patrick J. Sauer, “Escape
from Meeting Hell,” Inc. (May 2004): http://pf.inc.com/magazine/20040501/escape.html,
downloaded 7-29-04, 7 pp.
10. Sauer, 4.
11. Clyde W. Burleson, Effective
Meetings: The Complete Guide (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1990), 52-53.
12. Lencioni, 226-31.
13. Sauer, 4.
14. Burleson, 83-84.
15. Whitney and Geovagnoli, 136.
Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM