Leading effective meetings

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Government agencies don’t track “billable hours” as do consulting firms, therefore costs of staff time spent in government meetings are uncounted and usually ignored. This lack of cost accountability can help encourage unnecessary government meetings and unnecessarily long meetings.

Any time you’re in an unproductive meeting, you may calculate some of its hidden costs by multiplying the approximate hourly salary of each meeting attendee by the meeting length, and adding together these salary costs. Shocking though the results of your calculations will probably be, they won’t even include the uncountable costs of delays on projects caused by the staff time devoted to the meeting instead of to work on other projects.

Some tips to improve meeting efficiency and thereby reduce their costs:

* Meetings should be held because of necessity — not because of habit.

* Each meeting should address an issue concerning all attendees. If you are a supervisor, don’t use a staff meeting to essentially hold a series of one-by-one meetings with each staffer about issues that concern only the two of you while other staffers each wait for their turn for your attention.

* Each meeting should be thoughtfully allocated the amount of time that it warrants instead of automatically assigned a length that may be insufficient or excessive.

* Because of ever-shrinking attention spans, in most cases, several shorter meetings are more productive than one marathon meeting. When long meetings are necessary, they should feature breaks and refreshments.

* Every meeting should be scheduled in a room that will accommodate all attendees and equipment needs.

* Discussion meetings should be limited to small groups of essential attendees. They should be held in rooms that have U-shaped setups or conference tables — not classroom layouts.

* Before a decision-making meeting, each attendee should receive: an agenda that clearly describes the decision/problem to be discussed; relevant background material; and nstructions for any information that he must present at the meeting.

* In addition, attendees should be informed of the decision-making criteria and how the decision will be made. The facilitator has an important role to play beyond scheduling the meeting:

* The facilitator may prepare for a decision-making meeting by holding a premeeting with each attendees in order to identify areas of likely group agreement and disagreement.

* The facilitator should kick off the decision-making meeting by starting it on time, explaining the problem and its importance, affirming respect for the group’s judgment, and thanking attendees for their attendance.

* The facilitator should then highlight areas of group agreement and encourage attendees to keep open minds on other issues.

* The facilitator should solicit input from all attendees, keep the meeting collegial, encourage lively debate, and acknowledge comments with quick positive feedback.

* The facilitator should prevent disagreements from escalating and quell offensive criticism between attendees. The facilitator should suggest that attendees take irreverent conversations off-line, and diplomatically cut short dominating attendees.

* If progress stalls, the facilitator should jump-start the proceedings by, for example, reminding attendees of areas of group agreement and disagreement in order to expose previously unrecognized potential opportunities for compromise, as well as highlight potential pros and cons potential options. The facilitator may also solicit from the group insights about the cause of deadlocks, alternative negotiating approaches, and ideas about additional information that may be needed.

* If progress is apparently stymied by participants’ hidden agendas, the facilitator or other managers may opt to diplomatically address this issue headlong in a future meeting or privately with appropriate attendees. Also, the facilitator may seek additional decision-making guidance from other managers — which he or other managers can provide at future meetings.

* The facilitator should end the meeting by summarizing progress that has been made during the meeting, and defining an action that includes next steps assigned to attendees.

Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is IGotTheJob.net. Ask your career questions by email to lwhiteman@federaltimes.com or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman. View her blog at careermatters.federaltimes.com.

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Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is IGotTheJob.net. Ask your career questions by email to lwhiteman@federaltimes.com or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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