Preventing Unproductive Meetings

Just about everyone in the work world can relate to one of the following types of meetings:
• The "touch base" meeting where no one has anything to say because nothing has changed since the last "touch base" meeting.
• The technical meeting for non-technical people; at the end, you still have no idea how the technology works or why it was developed.
• The meeting to discuss what to talk about in the next meeting.
• A meeting in which a few very vocal colleagues dominate the conversation, making it impossible for others to express an opinion.

While meetings can easily go off-track, they also serve an essential role for creative professionals, allowing people to share information and generate ideas.

How can you make meetings short and lively versus long and tedious? A little planning can help prevent unproductive discussions and create an atmosphere in which participants are actively engaged. Here are some suggestions:

Why are we here? Avoid scheduling a meeting if you can’t provide a solid reason. While weekly team gatherings are a good place for coworkers and supervisors to provide updates, most meetings should have a specific purpose (i.e., to assign tasks related to a new project or explain upcoming initiatives). Evaluate the proposed agenda carefully to decide if a meeting is even warranted. For example, if you need to convey information about a minor change in company benefits, this might be better accomplished with a department-wide email or memo.

It’s OK to be selective. Once you have an objective, consider who really should be present at the meeting. Only invite those who will be affected by the topics up for discussion or who have insight relevant to the subject. If you’re holding a preliminary meeting to talk about creative direction on the annual report, you might not want the vice president of your department there; you’ll invite him or her to the next meeting, when you’ve gathered the best ideas. If you’re afraid certain people will feel slighted if they’re not included, notify them of the purpose of the meeting and let them decide whether to attend.

Put it in writing. Create an agenda and outline the topics you want to cover, listing the most important items first. Try not to fit too much into the schedule; attendees will be overwhelmed, and you’ll run out of time. Distribute the agenda in advance so people can come to the meeting prepared with questions or project updates.

Don’t hold attendees "hostage." Most of us have been to The Meeting That Never Ended, where the discussion takes a random turn and goes on long past expected (or needed). All meetings have a start time, but few have specific end times. As a result, too many sessions amble along until everyone runs out of time or patience. Make it a point to start on time. If your 2 p.m. meeting doesn’t start until 2:10, people have no incentive to be punctual. Likewise, wrap up when you say you will, or you’ll exasperate your attendees. If there are still topics to discuss, schedule a follow-up meeting.

Create a happy space. The meeting room should be well lit, large enough to accommodate all attendees comfortably and conveniently located. If the session will last more than one hour, consider providing simple refreshments such as bottled water, coffee, tea or soft drinks.

Be inclusive. There’s really no point in a brainstorming meeting if one person does all the talking. Try not to let any single person (yourself included) dominate the discussion. If a few of your coworkers are naturally quiet, you may have to engage them with specific questions.

Stay focused. Even with a written agenda, unrelated issues may be raised. To avoid going off on a tangent, acknowledge the value of the idea and promise to address it later (at another meeting, if appropriate). Be tactful and assure the attendee that the subject will be put on the agenda for the next meeting, so there’s adequate time to discuss it.

Keep a record. Your boss came up with a brilliant tagline for a new client’s product at the meeting. Unfortunately, you can’t remember it—and, three days after the get-together, neither can she. Decisions and ideas that seem compelling during the meeting often are quickly forgotten afterward. To prevent this from happening—and to preserve an accurate record of what transpired—designate someone to write down key points and action items. Then, after the gathering, you can prepare minutes for distribution and review.

There’s no denying meetings are an important source of "face-time" and often produce great ideas. With a little thought and preparation, you’ll prevent runaway meetings and increase productivity. Your gatherings might even turn out to be the ones your colleagues look forward to each week.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.