IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO: an important client calls your company’s country manager to complain that a big order has not arrived on schedule. Further investigation shows this was apparently the result of certain staff failing to follow standard operating procedures.
The manager reacts instinctively. He sends an e-mail to the entire team convening an urgent meeting at 3 pm the next day to resolve the issue. Participation is mandatory, so schedules are rearranged, client visits postponed and month-end reports put on hold.
With everyone in attendance, the manager starts by saying that the meeting will continue until a full review has been done and the necessary controls put in place. Fifteen minutes into the session, it becomes clear that the order had not been despatched partly because of an IT problem at the warehouse. Therefore, the manager tries to contact someone from the IT department. Unfortunately, the senior staff are at an off-site conference, so the meeting drifts on for another 30 minutes before it is decided to adjourn until the following Monday when the IT department can send a representative.
Those at the meeting wasted a significant amount of time, and important work was delayed, all because of a lack of proper planning. Similar situations recur throughout the corporate world.
The saying “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” has never been truer. Do not fall into this trap. Team meetings can do a lot to build morale, cohesiveness and motivation, but if not planned well, can achieve precisely the opposite.
You can get things right by using a simple method based on the following: why, what, who, when, where and how.
This establishes the purpose of the meeting. As a leader, you should consider this from several angles. Firstly, why is the meeting important to the business? You should be in no doubt about the issues to tackle and how these fit into the bigger picture. Secondly, why is the meeting important to you? A lot of time, energy and effort may be involved, so make sure you clearly understand the potential gains. Time is a valuable resource – make the best use of it. Finally, why is it important to your team? Compulsory attendance is one thing, but the participants should each have something relevant to contribute and a personal reason for being involved. Keep the intended outcome in mind from the outset and do not let it slip from view.
Having specific deliverables in mind is essential. Many meetings become a fixed part of the weekly agenda but are mainly sessions to update colleagues and share information. While this type of contact is useful in business, ask yourself if the time is being well spent. Every time you get the team together, there should be a tangible result. It might be ten new ideas from a brainstorming session, agreement to reorganise the office layout or confirmation of the social committee's plans. There is an easy test. If someone asks how the meeting went you should be able to state without hesitation what was accomplished.
Deciding who should attend is a key step when preparing for a meeting. But do not just list out the names. If you want people to give up their time, you should understand the role you expect them to play. Is it to share information, give expert advice or act as the devil’s advocate?
Ideally, each person should be crucial to the success of the meeting. No one should be there just to make up the numbers.
WHEN AND WHERE
These aspects relate to scheduling, the amount of time needed, restrictions on attendance and venue. In most cases, the easiest thing to do is just to announce the time and book the conference room. However, there are occasions when arranging an off-site meeting is a better alternative. This prevents interruptions, last-minute excuses and lack of focus. Also, a change of scenery often helps stimulate new ideas and improves the interaction between individuals who usually just sit at opposite sides of the conference table.
There should be a definite plan for running the session in order to achieve the desired result. This should include an agenda, points of procedure and the time intended for each item. It also extends to knowing the tone and mood you want or expect the meeting to take. If it is to be relatively formal, as chairman, you may need to establish the rules and ensure strict time limits. In a more informal discussion, the priority may be to get people to open up and think laterally.
The planning should take account of this issue and be focused on creating an environment suitable for solving problems, generating ideas or making decisions. You should also think about how to deal with possible conflict. This usually occurs in one of the three areas: people, process and product. If you can anticipate conflict because of the topic or personalities involved, plan how to mitigate or manage it.
When planning a team meeting, there are, of course, numerous other details to consider. Should the chairman's role be rotated? What briefing materials have to be circulated in advance? Is the necessary equipment at hand? Who will photocopy the handouts?
Each detail can be significant and should be considered ahead of time. Not doing so can lead to delays and make the session unproductive.
Therefore, when you get your team together, make sure the purpose is clear, and the details are under control. In that way, the meeting will motivate, not demoralise.
But at the same time, do remember that while a good plan is essential, a leader should be ready to adjust to circumstances if things don’t run as expected.
TIPS TO WIN
Whatever you do to avoid it, team meetings have a way of bringing personal rivalries and long-standing conflicts into the open. This is unlikely to change, so the best recourse is to be alert to possible animosity and have a plan to deal with it. As an astute leader, you should be able to anticipate the main areas of contention by knowing which subjects raise hackles and who has particularly strong views. If necessary, regard certain subjects as out of bounds for the meeting and steer clear of them. It is always possible to deal with them separately later. A true leader should not make the mistake of seeing conflict as a creative force but should aim to eliminate it or at least limit its adverse effects.
Running a successful meeting requires a specific mindset. The chairman or facilitator must focus on the processes and methods while not losing sight of the expected results. The key steps include creating an open and trusting atmosphere, explaining the purpose of the meeting and allowing people to have their say. This depends on remaining neutral and not letting one or two people dominate proceedings. Also, stay flexible and change direction if necessary. Take the time to clarify possible misunderstandings and listen intently. End the meeting by outlining the action points, giving deadlines for feedback and setting a time for the next session. Make sure the participants feel they have had a share in the meeting and always try to conclude on a positive note.
Follow the steps
Whether you are conducting a strategic planning session, a board meeting or an off-site team-building workshop, it is vital to have a point-by-point agenda. The best way to pull this together is by following the steps of the why, what, who, how, when and where process. When planning, the purpose of the meeting should come before everything else. There is no sense getting people together if you do not have a clear objective. Otherwise, you will be starting off on the wrong foot and showing others that while you may be in charge, you are not as focused and effective as you could be.