We've got to stop meeting like this

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 1996, 12:00am

REFLECTING on the amount of time I've spent in meetings over the past 35 years, I realise it represents quite a chunk of my life. There have been internal and external meetings, one-on-ones, management and team sessions, board meetings and regional conferences; sporting and charity meetings. Altogether, too many meetings.

There have been those with a solid purpose, and those with hopelessly unclear objectives. Conclusions may or may not have been reached, and positive action may or may not have resulted.

Because meetings are as inevitable as death and taxes, studying their dynamics has been a critical part of our research into business communication over the past three years. And it has been staggering to find just how much money and time is wasted on people sitting in misdirected and inconclusive business sessions. Particularly when you consider that their objectives are to share knowledge with others, find creative solutions to issues at hand, gain commitment to action - and to save time.

In a perfect world these goals would be accomplished, but in reality it is not what happens. Why? Because the human factor gets out of control. What you often find is: a) adversarial stubbornness, where people defend their positions at all costs; b) hierarchical posturing, where the most senior person dictates expected outcomes, without participants being motivated by what they are hearing; c) knowledge silos, where thinking is left to specialists (sales manager on sales) eliminating creative cross-pollination; d) big talkers or stronger personalities who hog the limelight, not letting others get a word in edgewise; and e) time abusers, who do not start and finish punctually, nor have a process that continually prioritises items for discussion.

Fortunately, acquiring communication skills essential for effective meetings is well within our grasp.

Firstly, it is important to understand that we all have different dominant social or leadership styles which affect the way we communicate, the way we make decisions and the way we are motivated. Let's call these styles directing, conduit, expressive and reasoning.

No one style is good or bad in itself. But people of a different style to you often see and react to your positive traits negatively. For example, people who are dominantly expressive may believe they have great ideas and are imaginative, enthusiastic and assertive. However, dominantly reasoning people may see them as unrealistic, pushy and shallow, with no follow-through.

Successful business communication must take these perceptions into account. By being aware not only of your own style but of the styles of other meeting participants, you are better able to elicit contributions from them, instead of bulldozing your way to an inconclusive meeting's end.

Secondly, no two people have the same view of the world. Each of us has a unique perspective based on our life experience, and deserves the opportunity to be heard on any subject. I have seen a shy newcomer to a British company in China express an opinion based on personal experience. It triggered discussion, resulting in a major change in distribution policy for the Asia-Pacific and an increased revenue of five per cent. At most meetings, this new employee would have sat at the back, unheard.

Thirdly, there are processes that speed meetings towards creative solutions. They fall into two categories: a) thinking processes such as SWOT Analysis, Mind Mapping and Six Hat Thinking; and b) organisational processes which prioritises discussion during the meeting. The more you can learn about and apply these processes, the better you will perform.

Fourthly, selecting the right topic can make all the difference.

Two quick tips that will 'save' many meetings.

a) Select topics that lead toward success. Consider the subject of 'too many mistakes in our proposals'. Discussion on this topic would tend to focus on the problems and who is at fault. But by choosing 'no-error proposals', you select a goal and discuss what has to be done to get there. Being positive leads to more creative solutions.

b) Take time initially to clarify your subject and ensure, as far as possible, that all in the room have the same starting point. Ever had an argument where you both used the same words, but talked about different subjects? Eliminate this potential from your meetings.

Fifthly, and absolutely crucial to meeting efficiency, is preparation. If you sit quietly to think through your topic, the meeting processes and the appropriateness of possible participants, then half the time you will either not call the meeting, or you will group it differently.

Thinking is the initial prerequisite. Then, have a realistic agenda with strict start and finish times, and give attendees maximum information and preparation time.

So what's the bottom line? Only an experienced group leader, with a room full of individuals ready to think and contribute (without posturing) and one who utilises a process that continually prioritises discussion, will keep the meeting short, produce more creative solutions and ensure commitment to action.

I could go on and on about this subject, but it will have to wait for another time. Or I'll be late for my meeting.

Cliff Shaffran is chairman of Quicksilver Ltd, a consultancy for creative business communication.