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Boss’s Tip of the Week #2: Meetings: How to get things done (without wasting time)

Here is the second installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Imagine what would happen if operations in an air traffic control tower were like the average corporate meeting: People speaking over one another and interrupting, random outbursts that have nothing to do with the topic at hand, some participants texting while others sleep, no clear assignment of responsibility and no follow-up. Scary, isn’t it?
Most meetings are pretty scary, too: Black holes that absorb huge amounts of time and accomplish very little (if anything). But just because there aren’t jumbo jets full of passengers at stake doesn’t mean we can’t still run meetings with the efficiency of an air traffic control operation.  
Start with a good reason to call a meeting in the first place. And no, an excuse to eat doughnuts is not one of them. But these are:
*Effective communication. When you need people to really understand something (a change in the company’s strategic direction, a new threat from your competition, a reorganization), a meeting ensures that everyone hears the same thing at the same time, and you can better judge the response.
*Shared expertise. Except in Congress, two heads (or more) are generally better than one. So when you face especially daunting challenges, getting people with different expertise and perspectives together to address the problem is a smart use of resources.
*Consensus. The search for consensus has been overdone: You do not need everyone to weigh in on what kind of paper to put in the copier. But you may need consensus on whether to launch a new product. If so, a meeting can be the most efficient way to get there.
*Productivity. When you hit a roadblock, you can let all work come to a halt to allow for a lot of finger-pointing and hand-wringing. Or you can bring people together to identify the problems and find solutions.

Whichever of these is your goal, know and communicate that to everyone involved. And do yourself (and everyone’s rear end) a favor and don’t try to accomplish all these things in the same meeting. 

Real Life Example
Teresa Taylor, chief operating officer of Qwest, starts every meeting by asking, “Do we all know why we’re here?” Taylor told the New York Times that often people don’t know why they are there – they were invited and so they showed up. If there are eight people in the room, they may have eight ideas about why they have been included. Taylor also asks, “Are we making decisions? Are you going to ask me for something at the end?”
Once the group has decided what they’re doing she asks again if everyone needs to be present – and sometimes people excuse themselves.  Taylor concedes the discussion can eat 10 minutes of time, but she says the investment is well worth it.
We’ll have more meeting tips in future columns.