“I see meetings as the engine that drives the organization,” says Barbara Burgess, chief executive officer, Pathways Home Health, Hospice, and Private Duty, Sunnyvale, Calif. Meetings are where decisions are made and agreements are locked down. However, Burgess found, the engine at her company had stalled.

She says she was “surprised and not happy at all with what I was seeing” upon finishing the acquisition of a building and shifting her focus back to operations and meetings. The bimonthly management meetings, attended by executives and managers, were inefficient. They had no structure, and decisions were not being made.

So, Burgess, with the help of Glowan Consulting Group, San Jose, Calif., revamped the meetings and instituted standards.

Now, each meeting has to have the following components: a facilitator, who runs the meeting and is responsible for securing food, AV, and meeting space; a team leader, who is responsible for gathering agreed-upon content; a minute-taker or recorder, who sends minutes to all participants via e-mail by the end of the meeting day; and a timekeeper, who makes sure that each item is discussed within a pre-set time limit. The roles rotate among participants.

Burgess says it's important to split the role of facilitator and team leader to allow the team leader, who oversees the content, to concentrate on what's being said and not get preoccupied with the challenge of keeping the meeting running smoothly.

The duration of the meeting depends on its type: information-sharing meetings typically last one hour, while brainstorming/problem-solving sessions last two to four hours.

Pathways also put a decision-making model in place, explains Burgess. Action items are approved by a 75 percent majority vote. “One hundred percent agreement is a wonderful thing to get, but it's rare.” All arguments are listened to and acknowledged, but “we cannot have one person hold us up. We have to make decisions.”

Decisions and action items are summarized at the end of the meeting. Items that require further discussion, but not action, are set aside in a “bin” or “parking lot” on the agenda and assigned to individuals for potential followup. The bin is often used when attendees get off-topic. At the end of each meeting, participants evaluate the session to discuss what worked and what didn't.

Admittedly, the structure eliminates informal discussions, says Burgess, but those discussions can take place in other settings. Now, meetings are shorter and more decisions are made. At one recent meeting, some 20 important decisions were made in an hour and a half. “It's not that people got smarter or more decisive, [it's that] we just created a structure that worked better. It's one of the best things we ever did.”