Ask anyone from Coverall North America about their most recent national sales meeting and the first thing they're likely to mention is the laser tag game they played a la Star Wars. "We divided the group into two teams and gave them all laser guns," says Amy James, director of marketing at the Ft. Lauderdale-based professional cleaning company. "Bringing Star Wars to the gathering was a stroke of genius that won the day. It created a team environment and a competitive mindset--and everyone had a ball."
This was the first time that Coverall had invited both its telemarketers and outside sales reps to the meeting. "We recognized that the outside reps didn't do it alone," says James. "The inside people are a definite asset. They do lead calls and set up the appointments. So we invited the top 15 telemarketers."
She began planning the meeting by identifying its goals: to foster teamwork, to increase sales numbers, to educate the salespeople, and to build a level of enthusiasm they could bring back with them to the rest of the sales staff. She also established a theme: "Into the Millennium: Expect to Win."
James arranged the agenda along two tracks: a telemarketing program and a program to educate the sales representatives in relationship selling and promoting teamwork. "I also wanted a leadership program so the reps could go back to their offices and teach their salespeople what they'd learned." She made sure to include plenty of time for the two sides to interact.
Each morning, there was asession for the entire group (which is where the Star Wars laser tag comes in). Then the telemarketers and the salespeople attended their separate sessions until about 4 p.m., with an hour off for a sit-down lunch. "We don't have speakers at lunch because we've found that their interactive time is just as much of a learning experience as listening to a speaker," says James. "The participants trade success stories and ask each other how they solved certain problems. Then when they get into a future situation, they can call each other. Attendees have told us that these opportunities to interact are the most important part of the meeting."
In the end, she believes, the meeting was such a success because it had clearly identified goals, it was targeted to achieve those goals, and the company had educated everyone on the meeting's purpose. As she put it, "This meeting did not miss a beat."
Why Are Many Meetings a Waste of Time? While James is on a high about her most recent and successful meeting, most people don't share her sentiments. In a recent online survey of 3,406 executives conducted by 3M Meeting Network, most respondents said that they estimate that anywhere from a quarter to half of the time they spend in meetings is wasted.
Unlike James, many executives never develop a clear objective as to why they're holding the meeting. Most company meetings also lack a formal agenda--a road map of how to reach their objective. "An agenda focuses people and helps structure the time," says Michael Begeman, manager of the 3M Meeting Network, who recommends that an agenda be drawn up in advance by the person calling the meeting, and shared with the stakeholders for their approval or changes.
There also should be a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. "Everyone should know who's in charge of the meeting process, who's ultimately accountable for the decision, who's managing the information, and how the rest of the attendees are expected to participate," says Barry Rosen, president of Interaction Associates in San Francisco.
Meetings have to be planned with all of the above aspects in mind to be productive, says Tom McDonald, PhD, a meeting consultant in Escondido, Calif. He begins his planning by asking his corporate clients questions designed to identify their reasons for holding the meeting. McDonald might ask where the meeting fits into the company's overall strategy, how it could further those objectives, and what the meeting leaders want their attendees to get out of it.
Next, he interviews three attendees from various levels of the company. He might begin with a staff employee, then someone from middle management, and finally a senior vice president. McDonald asks them a range of questions, such as how they rate their organization on teamwork, innovation, or peer support. "This way, they're coming to the meeting with an active mind, thinking this is going to be a substantive event," he says.
Let the Attendees Decide the Content Loews Hotels had been holding its national sales meeting the same way for years: The leadership team, which included the heads of sales, advertising, and public relations, would get together to plan the agenda. "Then, when we all agreed on the program, we'd go home--and that would be the end of it," says Charlotte St. Martin, executive vice president, marketing, for the New York City-based hotel company.
A few years ago, the company started doing things differently. "After creating an agenda outlining all of the issues we wanted to discuss, we went out and asked the people in the field for input about their needs and expectations for the meeting," she says. "This year, we went to the regional managers of every major hotel for their input. We said, 'Here's what we'd like to discuss. What subjects would you like to cover? What kind of training do you need? How much time do you want to spend with people in your own market? With other hotels? With customers?'"
St. Martin also assigns what she calls "subject captains" to take over a part of the agenda and choose the speakers, together with the corporate meeting planner. "In most cases, they act as facilitators too. For example, the session leader for the group market was responsible for connecting me with our four customer reps and working with them to develop the program."
Loews also uses a facilitator to orchestrate the meeting and give input on what's missing. "She organizes the content. She's the one to suggest that we get all the intense meetings over early and leave the more creative stuff for the afternoon."
Rosen is another advocate of using facilitators to keep meetings on track. In the early 80s, when Ford was looking at new ways to design its automobiles, Interaction Associates trained many team members and team leaders to act as facilitators. "That ultimately impacted how long it took Ford to bring its cars to the market," he says. "Facilitators run the meeting and leave the leaders to focus on what they want to accomplish."
Set the Scene for Success McDonald believes that a meeting's setting is an often overlooked factor in determining how productive it will be. "Can you think of two more passive environments than a classroom designed for a lecture or a theater designed for people to look at a screen to see what's going to happen?" he says. Yet, those static environments are the most popular room setups.
Instead, McDonald may arrange a room with circles of six to eight chairs without tables "so people know as soon as they walk in that this is going to be an interactive meeting." Or he may ask the participants themselves to do the legwork. "They may have to move a chair into a circle. Once they step inside the circle, they start shaking hands and talking to each other. And, in effect, the meeting has begun."
An approach called "open-space meetings" uses a similar setup. Jeff Aitken, a consultant and facilitator who specializes in open-space planning, gathers all the meeting participants into concentric circles of the same size. "Then I invite them to identify issues they really care about, to convene individual sessions to talk about those, and to generate an action plan." The Boeing Corporation used this approach when the company had to redesign the door of a new plane on a tight deadline. "Everyone involved put their information together in open space," says Aitken, "and they were able to generate a new design in short order."
Of course, sitting in circles isn't always the best game plan. "Meeting in a circle is more relationship oriented," says Rosen. "But if it's a task-oriented meeting, you want to have people's eyes focused on the task itself, not on each other. So perhaps you sit in a U-shape or facing the wall."
Your Most Valuable Teaching Tool? If all these elements are in place, meetings can be one of the most important ways that people learn in the workplace. A two-year study of more than 2,000 workers at seven high-performance companies, conducted by New York-based Arc Consulting LLC for the Center for Workforce Development, found that more than half of all employee learning takes place in informal settings such as meetings. So it's important to understand how to construct an environment for quality learning.
The way to begin is to do what Coverall North America, Loews Hotels, Ford, and Boeing did: Take a fresh look at your assumptions about everything from content development to room setup to attendee interaction, as well as who the attendees should be.
"Many meetings continue to be ritualstic," says 3M Meeting Network's Begeman. "We have a staff meeting every Monday at 10 a.m. because we've always had one at that time. We each give little reports on what we've accomplished during the past week."
Let's face it, he says: "In reality, those reports probably could behandled by sending the supervisor a brief e-mail."
1. Be prepared--This sounds so simple, yet it's far from common practice. Leaders don't develop an agenda, so time is wasted arguing about the process the group should follow. Participants don't do their homework, so the meeting bogs down in guesswork and speculation. Even the logistical preparation is often left undone, so time evaporates during the search for flipcharts, overhead projectors, and extra chairs.
2. Start the meeting at an unusual time--The typical meeting is scheduled to start on the hour or half-hour, which makes it easy for people to schedule back-to-back meetings and leads to chronic lateness as people grab a cup of coffee, stop at the restroom, or check voicemails between meetings. Instead, try scheduling your meeting for 10:10 or 2:37. People will be more likely to notice and adhere to the starting time, and they'll have more time to take care of their needs between meetings.
3. Make the meeting's purpose clear and specific--A clear sense of direction energizes a group and keeps it focused. It leaves no room for pursuing work that isn't relevant.
4. Schedule only the time you need--Suppose you are certain you could fulfill your meeting purpose in 50 minutes. Most people schedule it for an hour to build in a little cushion, then use the full hour--or more. The work expands to fill the time allotted for it.
5. Use a facilitator--Facilitators offer a toolbag full of activities and techniques for quickly guiding a group over the rough spots with minimal pain and effort. They keep meetings from getting stuck.
6. Use a timekeeper--Timekeepers track time for each agenda item, warn the group when time is running out, and stop the meeting at the end of the allotted time period. Remember, time is money.
7. Don't sit down--Think of a football huddle. Its purpose is very specific: Communicate the next play to everyone on the team. Imagine if the football team ran to the bench and sat down to get the next play. It would certainly slow the game's progress.
8. Create a parking lot--In meetings, a parking lot is a place to write down ideas, comments, and concerns that don't fit the topic currently being discussed. It's an excellent tool because it captures potentially important ideas and keeps the meeting focused and on track.
9. Develop and honor time-related ground rules--For example: A) We start on time. B) We never end late. C) We only tackle topics that we are prepared to handle. D)We stick to the agenda. E) We don't meet without a clear purpose.
10. Divide and conquer the work--Suppose you have a meeting of 15 people and you want to evaluate the merits of three concepts. Instead of having everyone evaluate each idea, break into three groups, having each evaluate one concept and then report on its findings. You'll get better results in half the time.