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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Meeting Dark Arts: Meeting Management

With all of the modern capabilities there is little excuse for not making a meeting. However, there are more meetings than ever and often we spend more of our time in them than actually accomplishing real work. What can you do to make your life easier. Just follow this series on Meeting Dark Arts and you won't need attendance from everyone all the time yet will get better results than ever before. Why? Because these tips and tricks will actually result in improved productivity through better communication.

Seth Godin in his post Three kinds of meetings, broke down the meeting types nicely:

- Information
- Discussion
- Permission

This post will focus on the D
iscussion type of meetings, these are the meetings held most often by business teams. When you are managing a team of multicultural, geographically diverse members you are often holding meetings with a different perspective than that of the typical westerner. Group meetings are run differently in each culture and these differences manifest in strange ways. An insightful approach to your meeting will result in better meetings and hopefully translate into better results.

Set the rules early
I start most of my meetings off identifying the time limit of the meeting for the consideration of many who must attend other meetings. I then let everyone know we may have to use a parking lot for issues that cannot be resolved quickly and that if we are spending to much time on any one topic on the agenda then a separate meeting will be held to review that item. If there is not a direct answer in the meeting then there is additional work that must be done on the subject and there is no point in continuing the discussion anyway, most of the discussion is people talking to sound important only.


  1. Remember Time Zone Differences
  2. Provide More Than One Way to Attend
  3. Send out an Agenda
  4. Make the Appointment a Complete Request
  5. Stick to Your Schedule
  6. Stay on Topic
  7. Assign Action Items
  8. Take Notes and Send out Minutes
  9. Discourage Interruptions
  10. Senior Staff Should Hold Their Tongue
  11. Request mobile devices be turned off (ok, just put them in silent mode)
Remember Time Zone Differences
First, remember that today's meeting may be happening tomorrow in Hong Kong, Singapore or another Asian country. Time zones become all the more important as you set up your meeting. I would recommend the use of a website like World Time Server to perform time zone calculations. Yes, most calendaring software will convert the appointment to the local time but it won't warn you that you have booked your 2:00 PM meeting at 3:00 AM my time. Please be considerate of your partners in other time zones.

Provide More Than One Way to Attend
With the advent of mobile devices it has become much easier for people to attend meetings from anywhere. Thus it is important to provide multiple ways to attend a meeting: in person, via phone, or via video. With the multitude of Internet tools available conference calling and video conferencing is very easy to set up. Remember to include the access phone numbers and pass codes (As a policy I always include the complete list of toll free numbers for all countries) so that the meeting can be forwarded and benefit those who are traveling. Unfortunately, with all of the access capabilities there is little excuse for not making important meetings. As a manager and meeting planner you will need to become comfortable with having team members on the phone or video and adjust your approach accordingly, I will cover the various rules and etiquette of these mediums in additional posts.


Send out an Agenda
And I mean send an agenda for every meeting. This may seem trivial but you and I both know that it is very rare to see meeting agendas. If you are going to have a meeting and go to the trouble to set a time and seek availability then take the time to write out an agenda. The agenda represents your goals for the meeting and if you expect to get these goals accomplished you need to write them down. Please let the attendees know the agenda before the meeting so they can come prepared. It gives attendees a chance to prepare. Springing your agenda on the attendees at the last minute demonstrates a lack of organization and ends up wasting time when needed information is not prepared for the meeting.

Make the Appointment a Complete Request
When booking the meeting include the meeting purpose (usually the subject item in the appointment), the location, conference call information and most important the agenda.
How often do we schedule meetings with a subject of: Catch Up? What do you want to catch up on? Is it business or do you want to discuss the latest sports scores? At least place a few word agenda in the appointment, that is why the space is provided for. If you want to pitch a project then include the project pitch as an attachment to the meeting. I really like Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule for PowerPoint. If you build your presentation around his recommendation and send it early there will be an opportunity to provide more information.

Stick to Your Schedule
Timeliness is a sign of respect. Start the meeting on time; do not reward late comers by going backward on the agenda or restarting the meeting. If late comers ask for more information, politely let them know that the minutes will be distributed after the meeting. Your colleagues may be angry at first but they will come to appreciate the respect that all are given for showing up on time. I know this may be difficult at first but it is an important message that must be given. If not enough people show up, then reschedule the meeting or do namawashi to get your answers.

Stay on Topic
Don't wander into tangential areas. Use a parking lot to place items for later follow up and assign them as action items. There is no better way to kill a project's progress than to spend your time in a meeting talking about something else.
Use a whiteboard for idea generation and tracking of parking lot items.

Assign Action Items
Most meetings cannot accomplish everything and undoubtedly will have action items or items needing follow up. Make sure that all action items are assigned and have a due date. Preferably the task assigned should be able to complete in two weeks or less. Anything longer will be to high of level for the assignee to be able to work on it. I will have another post on action items.

Take Notes and Send out Minutes
Every meeting needs to be minuted to provide attendees the opportunity to review the message that was heard and correct any potential differences. This practice also allows anyone who came late or missed the meeting to understand the action items, the discussion, and decisions. I will do two posts on meeting minuting and note taking to explain these further. The bottom line is there are many reasons why individuals cannot attend a meeting so give them the important information.

Discourage Interruptions
In some cultures it is not polite to interrupt the speaker so staff will wait their turn to talk. This also means that as the moderator of the meeting you have a responsibility to encourage other members to speak and make sure that all have their chance within the allotted time of the meeting. Remember to keep track of who has spoken. If you have a few people dominating the meeting then you will have to ask that they let others talk. It is important that, regardless of who you have in the meeting, you are careful not to allow any one individual dominate the conversation.

Senior Staff Should Hold Their Tongue
The more senior staff should wait to talk if they want genuine dialog to take place. In many cultures the senior staff are to give direction and the junior staff are to follow the direction. Thus if the senior staff lead the conversation the meeting will go in their direction, this is not bad if it is the meeting objective. If it is not, you may have to have a separate one-on-one meeting with the Junior staff to understating what is going on and then have another one-on-one meeting with the senior staff. This is commonly referred to as namawashi.

Request mobile devices be turned off (ok, just put them in silent mode)
A meeting is usually for a short period of time and is best when everyone is focused on the topic. Unfortunately many of us believe that we have to pay attention to email and instant messages all the time. Therefore always ask that devices be turned off. If someone is responsible for mission critical activities then ask that they set their device to vibrate and employ a special chime for emergency messages (BTW you should have all of your mobile devices set up this way) and yes I will post on this too.


When you are holding global scale meetings be aware that you have people attending from many different cultures. Yes, they can forgive your lack of understanding of their needs. They will be much more appreciative if you make an effort. This is by no way an exhaustive list of recommendations. I would welcome feedback from those of you who can share your first had experiences.


Written by: Jeffrey Hurley in Central, Hong Kong

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