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Worthwhile meetings possible, but…

This week’s editorial focus is meetings and conventions. At last count, I have attended 119,324 meetings over the last 30+ years, so I consider myself an expert on the subject. OK, maybe not 119,000 — but it sure seems like it.

Why do we meet? Obviously, to communicate and make decisions. So, are organized meetings effective devices for communication and decision making? Opinions vary, but on the whole, I doubt we get enough out of meetings to justify the expense of having them. In my judgement, impromptu meetings are far more worthwhile than formal, agenda-based meetings.

Nonetheless, meetings we shall have because, if for no other reason, a week has passed since the last one. Inarguably, it behooves us to make as effective use of our meeting time as possible. In the interest of improving the productivity of the Mississippi workforce, I hereby submit Joe’s principles of conducting good meetings.

In my experience, decisions are made by one person, who then persuades the group to “buy-in” to the deal. Therefore, if I’m right, the whole concept of group decision-making is an oxymoron. Now, let me quickly point out that meetings are valuable tools for acquiring information. Just not for decision making itself.

Rule No. 1: there should be no formal meetings without an agenda and an agreed time frame. Further, the agenda should be result specific and not generic. Fred speaking about the company picnic will accomplish nothing while Fred outlining four recommendations for improving the picnic has a chance of being valuable. The later requires Fred to put himself at risk, whereas the first only requires that he show up for the meeting.

Rule No. 2: no meeting should last more than an hour. There is an old saying that our minds can absorb only as much as our backside can endure. Most backsides can only endure about an hour before discomfort sets in. Besides, limiting the meeting to an hour creates a sense of urgency that is also beneficial.

Rule No. 3: always follow-up on suggestions made during formal meetings. Ignoring people’s heartfelt ideas is a prescription for demoralization.
Once someone has risked ridicule by offering a thought, it deserves a response even if their idea is harebrained beyond belief.

Rule No. 4: always start and end meetings on time. It adds an air of respect for the group and encourages promptness. Publicly ridicule any participant who comes in late or leaves early as this distracts from the meeting’s effectiveness.

Rule No. 5: meeting leaders should always summarize the results and benefits of meetings. If none can be recollected, never have another meeting since, clearly, they are a waste of time.

Rule No. 6: never take a vote on a course of action at a meeting. It doesn’t matter what the group thinks since one person is going to make the decision anyway. Having the group vote is not only a waste of time but creates a false impression that decision-making is a democratic process, which it certainly is not.

Rule No. 7: collect all cell phones and pagers at the beginning of the meeting and put them in a soundproof container. I know denying access to cell phones for a whole hour can cause fidgeting and, in extreme cases, emotional anguish. Nonetheless, allowing electronic appliances to interrupt is disrespectful and inefficient and should not be tolerated.

Resorting to the ol’ standing-on-one-foot tactic
Invariably each group has one or more characters that are enamored with the sound of their own voice and go on and on and on about nothing. I have the solution for such problems.
Some 25 years or more ago, The Wall Street Journal reported the meeting rules used by some obscure African tribe. In accordance with that tradition, any tribal member could address the council at length about any subject whatever as long as he could stand on one foot. Thus, those blessed with verbosity and good balance could dominate the meeting. Lesser skilled tribal members were forced to be more concise.

This custom has been in place for hundreds of years and is such a good idea that I have, on occasion, actually resorted to using it. After listening to someone for what seemed like an interminable time, I have ordered the speaker up on one foot for the remainder of the presentation. It’s noteworthy how effective this little tactic actually is.

Needless to say, some of the aforementioned rules are given with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. In truth, I know that business meetings are a necessity, but I do think that they are usually not as effective as they could be.

I think it far more effective to actually empower employees to make decisions on their own. Give the parameters, goals and objectives of the organization or department, get out of the way and let the pony run. Obviously, some people cannot function in an empowered environment. Those people cannot work here at the Mississippi Business Journal since I’m a lousy micro-manager and refuse to change at this late date.

Thought for the Moment— Laziness grows on people; it begins in cobwebs and ends in iron chains. The more one has to do the more he is able to accomplish. — Social activist Thomas Buxton (1786-1845)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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