Henry David Thoreau, whose family was in the pencil making business, said that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. His remark, as fresh as ever, convinces me that he must have attended several business meetings. You know, the kind of ineffective, rambling, time–eaters that squeeze all the juice out of life and leave you feeling worn out and almost incoherent from all of the blarney and bombast you’ve been subjected to.

But where do you start? Trying to begin to address the monumental task of making meetings effective is like opening the door to a garage or attic that is jammed full to the rafters with the baggage of a lifetime. A task for Hercules. Having the audacity to try and create order out of the unfiltered chaos of it all is daunting and not a little intimidating. But while there’s blood flowing, you try to make a change for the better.

If we’re going to tackle the business of making meetings effective, we have to deal with three vitally inter-related issues: the logistics of meetings, the people and teams that are associated with them, and the various ways to facilitate and optimize the purpose behind the meetings. A Manager at one of the companies I consult for said that the three issues are like a three-leafed clover, all of them interconnected and yet forming mutually distinct parts. I can only say that I wish the skilful practice of these three components were as common as three-leafed clovers. Correcting ineffective meetings is a tall order but not impossible. We’ll deal with the first of these, meeting logistics, in this article, and leave teams and facilitation for future articles.

First things first: meeting skills. My premise is simple: most meetings tend toward chaos even when a strong chairperson is in the driver’s seat. Just think about it, based on your own experience. When was the last time you enjoyed going to a meeting?

Here are some basic facts about meetings. Most managers spend one quarter of their working lives in meetings, and yet at least fifty per cent of all meeting time is wasted. Think about the implications of those facts. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find out that meeting management is the single most underdeveloped skill in North America.

When we lift up the rock of ineffective meetings, what do we find? What lies beneath? What are the problems? The mother of all meeting problems, is just simple rambling: getting off the subject, unstructured discussion, or even worse, irrelevant talk. You know, the usual blather. What are some other common problems behind sluggish meetings? Here they are: no agenda; no summary; no decisions made. We can go on. Everyone knows about meetings starting late or running overtime, or interruptions. So, where do we start?

The real secret behind efficient meetings is to choose the right kind of meeting format to fit the specific task. Basically, there are three types of meetings: the decision-making or problem solving meeting; the information sharing meeting; and the implementation meeting. Once you’ve determined the type of meeting, you can focus on the size of the meeting, that is, who to invite. As far as meeting size goes, the ideal number is the smallest size capable of performing the task of the meeting effectively.

Each organization has a unique culture that affects the way its meetings are conducted. Like a thumbprint, it underscores the common organizational behaviors that are fundamental to its operations. Based on that thumbprint, a meeting will be successful if everyone understands what the expectations are. What that means is that an effective organization will have a written meeting policy. A brief one or two page meeting policy establishes a number of very important considerations. It sets guidelines for standardizing meeting activities. It gives parameters for meeting times and other logistics. And finally, it encourages productivity through pre-determined expectations such as how people will communicate with each other. A meeting policy is crucial to putting standards in place that everyone is aware of, so that the business of the meeting can take place without running aground on the kinds of common problems that were cited earlier.

For example, a meeting policy can determine meeting length. A stipulation that all problem-solving meetings will be completed in one hour will allow meeting participants to channel their energies accordingly- provided of course, that the meeting is chaired by an effective and efficient chairperson. That puts the onus on the chairperson to work within the parameters established by the organization’s meeting policy.

So, what can a chairperson do to make a meeting effective and efficient? One simple act can set the stage for all that follows. If, and this if is a magnificent one, if the chairperson gives an orientation speech or briefing on what the meeting is all about, its purpose, and the expectations surrounding it, then things can happen. This pivotal speech is nothing more than a three to five minute briefing at best, but it serves to focus attention on the matter at hand. It’s about clarifying the meeting’s purpose, and the procedures to be followed. If it’s done well, it can cut meeting time in half and increase the probability of better decision-making, if that’s one of the goals. When you think about it, a briefing at the start of a meeting can have an impact similar in its way to that of the wheel in human transportation: it can effect a simple, profound transformation.

Incidentally, most people would agree that an agenda is crucial in focussing on the work of a meeting. A well-crafted agenda can serve as a touchstone for the meeting discussion and the tasks to be accomplished. Not only does it serve to prioritize important and urgent items, it can also serve to alert meeting participants on the preparation required- if it’s distributed in advance of the meeting.

One very simple agenda design that I’ve found helpful to kick-start a meeting is the two-item approach. In the item one phase, each person tells the group what they have accomplished, in observable and measurable terms, since the last meeting and who helped them. In the item two phase, using a round robin format, each person reports on what they anticipate accomplishing before the next meeting and identifies who can help them achieve their goals. Try it, and see the results.

Henry David Thoreau, I think, would have appreciated a well-run business meeting. He said it’s never too late to give up your prejudices. Prejudices against meetings, against poorly organized and run meetings, can be given up for meetings of a higher order, meetings that work. All you have to do is sharpen your pencil.