AS THE 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. Just another day.

They started out with an ice-breaking exercise designed to help the session get off to a good start. 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.

In Brentani's case it succeeded — she looks back on it as one of the most successful meetings she ever attended.

Whether tinkering with the meeting process or focusing on content, executives are always looking for ways to improve organizational meetings — the kind that all too often degenerate into an aimless mishmash. Let's face it: Too many staff meetings are nothing but “dog and pony shows [featuring staffers] talking about what I did last week,” observes Joan Lloyd, CEO of Joan Lloyd & Associates, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm specializing in leadership development, organizational change, and teambuilding.

Causes of Death?

Ask executives and meeting experts and they'll usually have no trouble agreeing about what makes for a bad meeting.

“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 agenda-less 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. So few of them 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.”

Lloyd points to one of her current consulting jobs to demonstrate how a meeting can go awry. A corporate vice president has a number of directors reporting directly to him, one of whom, Lloyd says, is a typical “rising star with very little use for anyone else in the room, who hogs the floor and intimidates everyone else. It's not a meeting, it's a monologue.”

Until that vice president gets control of the situation, Lloyd says, the dynamics in that meeting room will make for a bad meeting and some very skewed decision-making.

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,” says Co-nect's Brentani. She suggests breaking into small groups during a staff meeting to get attendees more involved and focused.

This need to get attendees to interact extends to virtual meetings as well, says Barbara Jean Cummins, associate director for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in Florham Park, N.J. Cummins is part of a 35-member planning team that is spread across the United States and by necessity must meet virtually.

“It's hard,” she says. “I like to participate and I like to be vocal, but not everybody's like me. I might make a pronouncement and have the feeling the other people on the phone feel the same way. But I can't see, and that's a challenge. My recommendation is to solicit information from people, as if you are sitting in the same room with them.”

A Little Silly Putty

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. “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 corporate 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.”

Dr. Meeting

An interview with Patrick Lencioni, author of Death by Meeting

Patrick Lencioni has sat through one too many lethal meetings in his corporate career. In fact, bad meetings were one of the main reasons he left the career track. After years of working at Bain & Company, Oracle, and Sybase, where he was president of organizational development, he jumped ship with four other employees and founded his own consultancy, The Table Group, in 1997.

With his new best-selling business fable Death by Meeting (2004, Jossey-Bass), Lencioni is becoming known as the doctor of the weekly meeting. The story centers around Casey McDaniel, whose computer game company is bought out by a competitor and whose job is on the line because an observant exec begins to question his competence based on the way he holds his meetings. Casey (all the characters' names are those of Lencioni's staff's children) is a really nice guy, although a little laid back. But he struggles with being a leader and has trouble keeping his people inspired. That is, until he hires a twentysomething administrative assistant who teaches him to make his meetings more like — well, the movies. (You have to read the book.)

The book's executive summary shares Lencioni's strategies for building better meetings, which have to do with holding different types of meetings for different purposes (“daily check-ins” vs. “monthly strategics”). “The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings today,” he says, “is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting.” It's like a bad stew, with too many ingredients.

CMI's Editor Barbara Scofidio spoke with Lencioni by phone from his Lafayette, Calif., offices.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives: What made you want to write this book?

Lencioni: I sat through one too many horrible meetings, and I was perplexed by the universality of people's distaste for meetings. I realized there was something fundamentally wrong. So rather than tuning out, which is what most people do, I started focusing on why these meetings were so bad.

What is the ultimate result of poorly planned and executed meetings?

The real cost isn't wasted time — the far greater cost is the cost of the bad decisions you make about important things, like, let's say, a new product. If people are bored, they're not going to make the right decisions. So there's a human cost, a financial cost, and a strategic cost.

Most people's first solution, when it comes to staff meetings, is to hold fewer of them. What do you think about that?

The answer is not to not hold them at all, but to make them better. If people accept the proposition that meetings are bad, there's no hope that they'll get better. But meetings are critical to an organization. That's like a surgeon saying he doesn't want to operate.

In the book, you refer to the movie industry as understanding how to hold people's attention. Can you explain why?

The movie industry figured out long ago that if you don't get people's attention right away, you're done. Think about it: Why would people pay far too much money for tickets to sit for two hours on uncomfortable chairs eating expensive, messy food? Because they're passionate about the movie they're watching! Meetings need to be more passionate and more focused. People need to know the purpose of the meeting and not let it drift.

Why don't more managers get it?

I think people get used to things and think that that's just the way they are. It's like the college professor who sees people nodding off as he lectures and figures, “Well, that's just what college kids do.”

Also, maybe some managers shouldn't be leaders. As a leader, I get really frustrated when I see people being bored. These people have convinced themselves that the problem is the meeting, not them.

I'm afraid to ask, but what do you think about off-sites?

The problem with off-sites is that they're often boondoggles, or they're just too soft. The key is to get people into a different setting and take a long, hard look at your business.

Off-sites can be time-savers. I suggest that you do them quarterly. Think of your company as a race-car driver. You need to slow down on the turns to be able to drive fast again. Off-sites are those turns. So many executives have an adrenaline addiction, and they can never slow down and regroup. But that's the purpose of an off-site.

So, let us in on the secret to making your staff meetings better.

You don't make them better, you make them great. It's not about making them more fun. It's about making them so relevant that people can't imagine not being there.

I use meetings in my company as an example. We roll up our sleeves, argue, struggle, and 2½ hours later, the clock has spun by. We know the importance of meetings, and we're passionate about them.

Our Meeting Needs a Tune-Up!

Like any organization, Corporate Meetings & Incentives and its sister magazines, known as The Meetings Group, have from time to time looked in the mirror and decided our staff meeting could use a tune-up — if not a complete makeover.

With a staff full of telecommuters, our weekly face-to-face meeting can turn into a long and arduous affair as we try to cover as much ground as possible. Despite several attempts at improvement, such as rotating facilitators and even painting and decorating our conference room, it remained, well, long and arduous.

So a few years back, we decided to bring in Michael Begeman, creator of the 3M Meeting Network and a professional meeting facilitator, to help us. He attended one of our meetings as a silent, yet observant participant. Beforehand, we had supplied him with background information on the group as well as audiotapes of some previous meetings.

Among his observations and suggestions:

  • Set meeting objectives;
  • Come prepared;
  • Establish time limits on agenda items;
  • Eliminate side conversations and stay on topic; and
  • Review group decisions and assign action items.

Although we tried to stick with what we learned from him, over time, people again grew dissatisfied with the meeting. So this past summer, we began another tune-up. Each editor was asked to fill out an anonymous survey in order to identify areas in which the meeting could be improved. The survey also asked for suggestions to make it stronger.

Among them:

  • Once every two months have the meeting over a meal, maybe at a restaurant.

  • Rather than meet as a group every time, break into small groups to discuss specific practices, or talk trends in different markets.

  • Do more brainstorming. Establish ground rules: No one should shoot down other people's ideas or criticize people for not knowing something.

  • Use outcome mapping (see July CMI) to help solve specific issues.

  • Develop methods to elicit input from people who are usually quiet — but without pressuring them.

  • Consider holding the mandatory full-group meeting every two weeks, instead of weekly.

Sound familiar? Then it's probably time to tune up your meeting, too!

Role Playing

Sharing the facilitation burden can not only help the meeting process but also let staffers learn the components of a good meeting. Joan Lloyd, CEO of Joan Lloyd & Associates, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm, suggests that assigning roles can help in teaching meeting skills and make meetings more fun and productive:

AGENDA OWNER — takes responsibility for collecting agenda items and deciding on the priority and time allotment for each item

OFF-TRACK JACK — steers the group back on track 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 by the end of a meeting everyone knows what he or she is accountable for

PARTICIPATION POLICE — ensures that everyone is involved and opinions are heard