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Bad meetings can cost companies millions in money, time

Ever wondered how much meetings cost, especially when the discussions seem to go around in circles and you leave not sure what was accomplished?

The cost of unproductive meetings can be very high, says Janet Danforth, founding partner of Facilitator4hire Inc., who teaches facilitation skills, facilitates meetings and assesses candidates for the profession’s international certification, the certified professional facilitator (CPF). Danforth had one client who did a study of salaries and benefits from unproductive meetings involving 16 members of the company’s information technology department over a year.

The company wanted to make sure it was getting a return for the investment in facilitator training. The study showed just for the 16 people, unproductive meetings were costing the company $1.6 million per year in lost productivity.

“That is astonishing to me,” said Danforth, who is based in Westminster, S.C., and has done meeting facilitation training for Mississippi companies such as Triton, an ATM manufacturer in Long Beach. “But it is not unusual. Meetings that don’t achieve their purpose cost the company. In addition to frustration and anxiety, just plain old money is lost. It is a dollars-and-cents issue. Companies are now starting to recognize that when you bring people together in a collaborative environment, someone trained in basic facilitation skills should lead the meeting.”

One of the keys is that the facilitator should remain neutral on the topics being discussed. Especially on difficult issues like mergers and downsizing, it is important to bring in an outside facilitator who can remain objective. Someone who receives a paycheck can find it impossible to be neutral about downsizing. For other types of meetings, it might be best to use someone on staff trained in basic facilitation skills.

“More and more companies are training internal staff in basic facilitation skills to run collaborative meetings,” said Danforth. “Our company does meeting facilitation services for corporations, towns and government, and also goes in to teach people inside their organizations how to do what we do.”

Skills for running good meetings are perhaps still largely undervalued in the business world. Most courses for a master in business administration degree include a chapter on meeting facilitation. But Danforth said while people get introduced to the ideas, not enough time is spent to really teach people the skills.

Meeting facilitation is particularly important with today’s emphasis on teamwork.

“Back when Americans started doing Total Quality, the approach was to do quality teams,” Danforth said. “I don’t think we really understood the cost of teaming, collaboration and bringing people together to achieve a business objective. In the past several years, businesses are finally looking at the cost of collaboration. What they are seeing is if you just throw people in a room, it is really hit or miss whether that group of people will have the skills to achieve the purpose for which the meeting was called.”

One dominant person can take over the meeting so the group is unable to achieve its purpose. Or people can get off topic and begin to ramble so the goal of the meeting gets lost. Danforth says domination and the inability to remain focused on achievement of the purpose are the two biggest enemies to successful meetings.

Companies have now learned it is cost effective to provide professional meeting facilitation when a team is working to make decisions.

“What we are finding is that teams that come together to achieve a purpose or solve a problem oftentimes are more successful if there is someone in the room whose job it is to think of the processes the team would go through in order to get the job done ahead,” Danforth said. “The facilitator is actually neutral on meeting content. That is the biggest help the facilitator can be, neutrality on the business content. The people in the room were put there because of what they know about the content. So what we are learning, really, is teams can be more successful with some help.”

More than an agenda

Danforth suggests that an agenda for a meeting is not enough. Instead, it is important that the meeting have a clearly stated purpose so everyone starts the meeting with the end result in mind.

“You know when you walk out the door what you are supposed to do or produce,” she said.
As a profession, professional meeting facilitation is relatively new. It has only been since about 1999 that the core competencies have been in existence.

“For all intents and purposes, facilitation is a new profession, maybe 12 to 15 years old,” Danford said. “Before that people often just referred to teamwork and other words to describe what they were trying to do.”

Doug Sholes, senior director of marketing and product management, Triton, says its facilitator training was well worth it.

“In fact, we have had two training sessions with Janet,” Sholes said. “The reason we did it in the first place is we have a big annual meeting with all of our customers. In our distributor conference, we have break-out sessions. All the attendees are independent businessmen. Every one of them is aggressive, a self-starter personality. Our concern in the break-out sessions was how to maintain control and make it a productive session for us and them. Even in small groups, you can have a lot of volatility. What Janet did was teach us how to make it effective for them and for us. Training made all the difference in the world in our conference.”

Staying on track

While the main purpose of the training was for the distributor conference, Sholes said Triton has been able to take what was learned and use it internally as well. And now when he goes to meetings outside the company and sits in the audience, he can immediately see if the person running the meeting has had training.

“If the host doesn’t understand how to facilitate a meeting, that can cause loss of control with certain individuals being allowed to dominate the discussion, and the meeting not staying on track,” Sholes said.

Danforth said her mother questioned her about why she does professional meeting facilitation and teachers others how to do it. “My mother thought I might be cutting into my own business by training others,” Danford said. “But I told her that people who understand professional meeting facilitation are more likely to use the services of someone like me when it is important to have an outside meeting facilitator.”

Chuck Ueltschey, manager of community services for Mississippi Power Company, agrees about the importance of using neutral outside facilitators in some cases.

“Facilitators have a difficult time facilitating their own work group,” said Ueltschey, who has been involved in meeting facilitation since 1990. “I don’t recommend it. It is better, in my opinion, to have a facilitator outside of the work group. A facilitator, in my opinion, should never influence the group on direction. They are there to keep the discussion going, and come to a decision. A facilitator should be a neutral to the problem. It is quite inappropriate for the facilitator to give an opinion in the middle of a discussion. It is extremely difficult not to give an opinion especially if it is a heated discussion. It is difficult to stay neutral, but you just have to.”

Borrowing the good ideas

Ueltschey has gone through several different types of training programs, and has picked up a lot from other professional facilitators.

“Good facilitators have a tendency to borrow from each other,” Ueltschey said. “When I go to a meeting and find someone who does an exceptional job, I take notes and then I will try that. That is where people get a lot of their best material.”

In addition to facilitator training courses, Ueltschey said the Steven Covey Principal-Centered Leadership Program used by Mississippi Power and other companies is helpful.

“What we found out through Covey is that we need to be effective and efficient,” Ueltschey said. “You need to do both. A lot of times in meetings we might get the efficient part. But we also need to be effective in getting the performance results we want. That is where a facilitator can help a group stay on track, and come back to evaluate efficiency. Businesses’ big gain is managing time well, staying on track and coming out with a good product — in other words, something that actually works.”
Because he works in community services, Ueltschey does a lot of meeting facilitation with elected officials and community-based organizations.

“After Katrina, there were a lot of the volunteer work groups in our area,” Ueltschey said. “We worked with volunteers groups in Harrison and Hancock counties. Volunteer groups are people who don’t know each other well. They come from all over the place, so they need more of an opportunity to capture efficiency.”

Laying the groundwork

One thing that is important is pre-planning for a meetings. Sit down and discuss the objectives, how to go about achieving the objectives, and decide who is assigned to what path. Build in some ground rules stating everyone gets to participate and addressing how conflicts can be solved.

“That is not the way most folks start,” he said. “I think it is more effective to sit down for a few minutes and pre-plan what you are going to do. That is where a facilitator can help quite a bit.”
However, sometimes people don’t want to be facilitated. They may already know how they want to do it.
“If it doesn’t come out the way they want, they will not be happy about it,” Ueltschey said. “They may not want to be facilitated. With people interacting, you are always going to have that situation. What a facilitator can do is help the group work better together. But you can’t guarantee the outcome will be what everyone wants.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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