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  • Pat Libby

How to Break the Vicious Cycle of Stupid Meetings

I’m no Sherlock Holmes but I know when things just don’t add up.

If you ask anyone who works for a nonprofit organization how their work is going, more often than not they’ll say, “I’m overwhelmed with everything I have to do” (or something similar).

At the same time that very same person is likely to tell you that they spend too much time in unproductive meetings.

A quick internet search of “How much time do American workers spend in meetings each week?” produces multiple (seemingly reliable) articles that report U.S. managers dedicate 40-50% of their time this way. That means that meetings are hogging up 16-20 hours of our time each week!

All of which begs the question: If we are so overloaded with work, and much of our work week is spent in useless meetings, why aren’t we doing anything to make meetings better?

It must be because most people don’t know how.

This blog will walk you through a few of the fine points of designing and conducting an effective meeting.

The most important thing to understand about meetings is this: a meeting must have a purpose. Information sharing, as the lone reason for a meeting, isn’t enough.

A meeting must be called for making decisions or taking action. Otherwise, don’t have it.

Now, you might ask, “But what about sharing information on the work of our respective programs?” to which I am compelled to respond that you can thank your kindergarten teacher for providing you with reading skills.

The truth is that meetings should never be comprised of oral reports.

The only time it is necessary and important to share basic information during a meeting (along the lines of, “here’s what we’ve been doing lately”) is when:

  1. The information can empower, inspire and serve as an example to others at the meeting about how they could do something similar (for example, “this is how our department does community outreach.”). Note too this should include time for the participants to ask questions about how a particular effort works so that they can apply what they learn.

  2. People are brainstorming ideas about how they can collaborate.

  3. Everyone is meeting to discuss, propose or understand policy.

  4. The information provided is grist for strategic decision-making.

If it’s all about building camaraderie among the troops; go to lunch together. That might actually be fun!

The second cardinal rule of good meetings is this: All meetings should start and end on time.

Think about it: if you’re meeting with 7 people and 6 of you are waiting 10 minutes for the last person to arrive, you’ll have collectively wasted an hour!

A trick to starting your meetings on time is placing the most important item at the top of the agenda.

And speaking of designing the agenda, make sure the agenda is designed thoughtfully.

By this I mean make sure that you think through exactly what must be discussed and decided, that the attendees have all of the information they need in advance (to read and review before the meeting in order to ask questions and make sound decisions at the meeting), and that you have allocated sufficient time to each agenda item.

When you slap together an agenda with little thought, it is likely that the outcome will be slap dash too. If you want to have a productive meeting, you need to plan to make it happen.

To make that a little bit easier for you, I created this step-by-step guide that you can download for free and print out. Go out into the world and have a great meeting!


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