As the staffers filed into the conference center meeting room, some joked, others spoke in hushed tones, and a few buried their faces in their planners and PDAs.

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, leaders always look for ways to improve organizational meetings — the kind that all too often degenerate into an aimless mishmash. Let's face it: Too many 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 organization leaders and meeting experts and they'll usually have no trouble agreeing about what makes for a bad meeting.

“Some meetings seem as if 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. An organization leader 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 leader gets control of the situation, Lloyd says, the dynamics in that meeting room will make for a bad meeting and for some very skewed decision-making.

Resuscitating the Victim

How do you start to re-engineer your meetings and retreats? 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 leaders 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 meetings 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 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,” he 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 organizational 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.”

Advice from the ‘Meeting Doctor’

With his new best-selling business fable Death by Meeting (2004, Jossey-Bass), Patrick Lencioni is becoming known as the meeting doctor.

Lencioni says the ultimate result of poorly planned and executed meetings is not wasted time.

“The far greater cost is the cost of the bad decisions you make about important things,” he says. “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. Lencioni doesn't agree with that.

“The answer is not to not hold them at all, but to make them better,” he says. “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.”