As staffers filed into the conference room, some joked, others spoke in hushed tones, and a few buried their faces in their PDAs. This was to be a routine meeting, nothing special, nothing earth-shattering. The group started out with an ice-breaking exercise designed to help the session get off to a good start. But then, without warning, one woman gasped, managed to utter a few choking sounds, and keeled over — apparently as dead as a doornail. Was there foul play involved, or was this literally a case of “death by meeting”?

Actually, it was the opposite. As related by Catherine Brentani, conference and events manager for Co-nect, an education consulting company in Cambridge, Mass., the “death” was part of a staged murder mystery designed to bring some fun and focus into the meeting. Brentani looks back on it as one of the most successful meetings she ever attended.

Let's face it: Too many staff meetings are nothing but “dog and pony shows [with staffers] talking about what they did last week,” observes Joan Lloyd, CEO of Joan Lloyd & Associates, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership development, organizational change, and teambuilding.

“Some meetings seem like they're on remote control,” says Lloyd, who has written and consulted extensively on running effective meetings. “They always meet at the same time, yet no one is prepared. They simply get together because they have to. It happens more than you can imagine.”

Barbara Streibel, author of A Manager's Guide to Effective Meetings and a consultant and manager at Oriel Inc., a consulting and training company in Madison, Wis., agrees that meeting for the sake of meeting is a bad idea. So is the agendaless meeting.

“I've seen meetings where people have their laptops or their PDAs out and are sending e-mails,” she says. “They are sitting there doing work until they have their 10 minutes where they sit up and tell everyone, ‘This is what I've done in the past week.’ And nobody else cares.

“Then there are the side conversations,” she continues. “And as soon as the meeting is over, people are rushing out and heading for the coffee machine for the ‘meeting after the meeting’ to talk about the things that the meeting should have been about!”

Multiple factors can account for the death of a meeting. “It's all in the process,” says Lloyd. “So few managers are good process leaders. Few think of managing the group dynamics — quieting the loud ones, pulling out the quiet ones. So few think about what they are actually doing in a meeting.”

Resuscitating the Victim

How do you start to re-engineer your staff meeting? Since the problem is usually not content but process, there is almost unanimous agreement that the agenda is the best place to start.

Agenda items should be assigned discussion time limits, says Cynthia Hornketh, vice president, Northeast Region, Conferon Inc. Also, develop action plans for agenda items. Assign staffers ownership of the plans, define the tasks, and set due dates.

Not starting on time can be the “kiss of death,” says Lloyd, who suggests that executives immediately establish that a meeting will start and end promptly.

“People want more movement, more interaction,” adds Co-nect's Brentani. She suggests breaking into small groups during a staff meeting to get attendees more involved and focused.

Sometimes a little bit of creativity or serendipity can help to set a tone that can make a meeting more effective. Cummins recalls a meeting that began with someone announcing that they had a little bit of gossip to share.

“It got everybody's attention,” Cummins says. “And the gossip itself was so trivial. I remember commenting to everyone, ‘Now I know how to keep people engaged.’”

Icebreakers can be creative and fun, says Brentani. She attended one meeting where childhood pictures of the attendees were displayed and colleagues were invited to guess which picture belonged to whom. Although the activity was simple, it was a “way to get people talking to people they normally wouldn't talk to.”

Bernie DeKoven, who more than a decade ago founded the Institute for Better Meetings in Palo Alto, Calif., works with meeting groups to help them with the idea that “people need to play,” he contends.

“We bring play and fun into the meeting room, and let that be an alternative to a formal staff meeting,” DeKoven explains. “It's certainly a valuable thing for an organization that's trying to be team-focused. Even playing a game of checkers [helps to establish a relationship]. You had a good time together. You're more relaxed.”

DeKoven says he's not trying to change the organization's infrastructure, “just massage it a little bit. It's amazing what a little bit of Silly Putty can do at the beginning of a meeting.”

Another technique that can encourage participation is giving attendees different roles to play in facilitating the meeting. This can not only help the meeting process but also let staffers learn the components of a good meeting. Lloyd suggests that assigning roles an help in teaching meeting skills and make meeting more fun and productive. Here are some roles that can be rotated:

Agenda Owner: Collects and prioritizes agenda items and allots time for discussion of each item.

Off-Track Jack: Steers the group back if it has veered off topic.

The Summarizer: Restates succinctly what the group decided about each agenda item.

To-Do Monitor: Monitors action plans so that at the end of a meeting everyone knows what he or she is accountable for.

Participation Police: Ensures that everyone is involved and that opinions are heard.