All I needed to know about how to run a meeting, I learnt from shopping

I did some shopping last week. I forgot the shopping list and went to the supermarket, and the result was:

  • I bought stuff that I still had
  • I forgot stuff that I really needed
  • And the shopping took twice as long

If I had taken a few minutes at home and planned for my shopping, it would have been faster, and more effective, not to mention that I would not have earned the ire of my wife.

In case you are wondering why I’m talking about shopping, it’s because it is analogous to things that sometimes happens at work. Going to a meeting with no preparation or running a project with poor or no planning is just as bad as my shopping experience. It is an inefficient use of time, energy, and resources.

I don’t know about you, but some of the progress review, design review, and vendor coordination meetings that I’ve had an opportunity to attend have the following characteristics:

  • The agenda for the meeting is prepared “live” in the meeting
  • Just compiling the information needed to discuss (or close) agenda items takes so much of the budgeted time that people lose their attention span and key decisions don’t get made
  • More often than not, people realize a day or two after the meeting that they had “forgotten” to discuss a couple of their key issues that they had wanted to discuss.

Because the meetings are somewhat ill-structured and ill-prepared, meetings tend to take a lot longer than they need to and there is a general feeling that meetings are a waste of time. I’ve had people ask me, “do you want me to attend a meeting or do work” as though the purpose of a meeting was wasting time and not decision making a.k.a work.

To continue the shopping analogy, it was a case of once bitten twice shy. The next time I went shopping, I made sure I took an inventory of the stuff at home, made a detailed shopping list, consulted and got sign off from my wife, and went boldly how no shopper had gone before. Or so I thought. Except this time when I came back, it turned out that I bought some stuff from the first store, only to discover that they were on sale when I got to the next one. Now this had been advertised in the morning’s newspaper and my wife knew about it, but alas I didn’t. Although it was a significant improvement from my previous trip, I still had a few miles to go to perfect my shopping formula. At least the lady was not as upset as the last time, there even was a hint of a smile, but there was also a hint to improve further.

This experience got me thinking about how I could translate the success in improving the efficiency of shopping to the workplace as well. So, the next time I conducted a meeting, I laid down a few ground rules:

  • The agenda had to be prepared a couple of days before the meeting and circulated. This helped people think about what they were expecting to get from the meeting
  • Everyone had to come prepared to discuss their issues, what had been done (or not done). For issues not done, they had to explain why and when they could get it done.

This time, the meeting was done in half the time that it originally took. People felt purposeful and that the meeting had achieved something that benefited them. This procedure ran for a few weeks. Although there was a significant improvement in how meetings were now being done and issues getting closed regularly, a lot of issues were still getting delayed. The reason was that once people left the room, people tended to “forget” about their commitments. There was always something burning and these issues kept falling through the cracks amidst this chaos. There was still room to refine the process, but we were onto something.

In the meanwhile, I kept tinkering with the shopping experience at home. Here also, I was onto something but it needed some further refinement. Twice bitten and what four times shy?! I suppose so. This time, apart from all the attention that went into preparation of the shopping list like before, I also signed up to get sales reminders from these stores. Given that a lot of them now push their sales, I now get emails on where sales were happening, when, and for what items. Now, I was able to get what I wanted, at the price I wanted where I wanted. Voila! . The perfect shopping trip: no time wasted, no money wasted, and no mistakes!

Hmm, how could I apply that success at work? Well, it was easy to apply a similar principle. Everybody needed to be periodically reminded of their commitments so that they didn’t forget that amidst the other work assignments. So, an effective reminder mechanism was created. Now, we have just about as good a process for managing meetings that we could get.

  • The agenda was getting prepared a couple of days before the meeting so that everyone could come prepared without wasting time in the meeting.
  • People were getting reminded of their commitments in between meetings and so they were able to close issues before they came to the next meeting.

The reminder mechanism actually had a couple of nice side effects. Almost no time was now needed to gather information on an agenda item and so meeting times were reducing. A lot of issues were automatically getting closed between meetings which means people were not waiting for the meeting to get an update status on their issues. Now, the meetings were purposeful and only to discuss interface issues, coordination points and people enjoyed coming to meetings.

Shopping does have its side effects!

  • 28 Apr, 2014
  • safir

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