Common rules for a true meeting of minds

5th May 2000 at 01:00
LIFE, for many, has become a continuous round of meetings.

How often we find "they're in a meeting" the response to our enquiry for a few moments of their time. Some people even seem to enjoy meetings. That in itself may be fundamental to the problem.

The prime purpose of a meeting is to come to an agreed, considered decision. It seems to me that this is often overlooked by those who delight in the inevitable social interaction and the opportunities to "score points" over colleagues.

Meetings are costly; even the most modest can cost up to pound;500. If a college has 20 such meetings a week, it represents a cost of pound;400,000 per annum - pound;170 million a year for the sector as a whole. But do we get value for money?

Meetings are an essential tool of management; hence the democratic manager will want to allow and encourage input on matters of importance. The more intelligent the leader, the more quickly and clearly he will see the best solution to the problem. But without a meeting of his team he may be tempted to make a decision without being in full possession of the facts.

Clearly it is important to consider all relevant views before the decision, rather than be forced to alter it later. So if meetings are so necessary, why do they have such a poor image?

One reason is that many are uncontrolled; they take place without the correct discipline. The most important determining factor on the effectiveness of a meeting is the chairperson.

The chair must ensure that all participants are fully aware of the agenda in advance so that adequate preparation can be made. They should know the timing and likely duration of the meeting. It is then the responsibility of the chair to conform to the plan, encourage views and curtail irrelevancies.

Timing is an important factor. Little is more wasteful than to have three quarters of the participants waiting for the rest to turn up. A healthy respect for other people's time is paramount.

Also, many meetings do not start on time because of the indifference of some of the participants to punctuality. Some will feel that their tasks are more important than the business of the meeting.

Try to have some important items early on the agenda to counter this view; those who miss the opportunity to make their contribution to key matters will turn up earlier next time.

In my time in industry, one chief executive had a fetish about starting meetings ahead of time to keep his directors on their toes. The directors were soon vying with one another to arrive earlier and earlier for important meetings. However, I do not advocate this technique - it wastes just as much time as meetings that start late.

It is important that the chair sets the discipline and makes it clear that the detrimental influence of a few will not be tolerated. Regular or routine periodic meetings are much more difficult to control in this respect than one off meetings for a particular purpose.

One technique I have found useful is the selection of "non-preferred" starting times. The relative precision of 9.05 or 9.25 creates an urgency not implied by 9 or 9.30 and to make the point more emphatically you could try 9.08 or 9.23, though most will initially believe this to be a typographical error.

I have found that this does make the point that you intend to chair with a degree of discipline and respect for participants' time.

There are two further elements I feel to be essential: there should always be minutes, or at least notes of a meeting, to emphasise a degree of importance; and always insist on mobil phones, the modern scourge of meetings, being switched off.

Donald Wood is a governor of Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton.

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