Many people have devoted a lot of time to making meetings work. They have developed some ground rules which can help you to get more out of meetings, in less time, and, often, with less stress.
Meetings can seem futile because they go off on tangents, or grind down over a single point. A simple list of things to do (or agenda) with approximate discussion times helps to keep everyone focused. One member may keep track of what decisions have been made on each item. This clarifies the outcomes of the meeting and makes action more likely.
Electing someone to the position of "process leader" helps the focus. The process leader can defuse conflicts, keep the discussion moving, and encourage those who don't often speak up to participate more. It helps if at least one person in the group has been trained in process consultation. Some companies keep process consultants on staff, either part- or full-time, to help other departments' meetings over stumbling blocks. Be cautious that the process leader does not squelch helpful discussions or take sides, two errors of carelessness or inadequately training.
Know what the problem is.
"Problems" are often merely symptoms -- sometimes of things which are easier to fix. Instead of going directly for a solution, get more information on the problem and try to think of anything else that could be causing it. Quality professionals call this root cause analysis.
Get ideas flowing.
High-ranking people can help by ignoring their status during the meeting. Pulling rank during the meeting, or seeking revenge for criticism afterwards, is sure to stop other people from contributing. (Most people do not realize they are doing this unless a trained and brave facilitator or process leader points it out). There should still be a clear leader, but the leader's function can change to encouraging people to express and discuss ideas (and maybe keeping the meeting on track and in focus). When some people do not contribute, they can be asked for their opinions (which should be rewarded, even if they are not on the money).
Several techniques can help to generate ideas. One is to have a period where everyone makes suggestions, which are written down in clear view; nobody can criticize an idea, no matter how foolish it may seem. People can then explain their idea for a minute or two; after that, each idea is evaluated by the group, one by one.
Sometimes, letting the staff solve problems without the store manager or owner can help them to think more creatively and work more effectively. Setting up task forces to deal with specific problems, and letting those task forces implement solutions, may be a fast and effective way to work; the power and involvement will also make the staff's jobs more rewarding.
Expect some conflict.
Some conflict is good, if arguments don't get personal and people aren't driven into a "this is my position" stance. Personal criticism may reflect tensions over another problem; and too little criticism may reflect fear or a sense that nothing real will come from the meeting. The best meetings have some criticism, but it's aimed at ideas, not people, and is grounded in problems with the ideas.
Spread the power around.
If success depends on the cooperation of the people at the meeting, it's often best to let them decide, as a group, what ideas they'll use. If people have a hand in deciding policies or procedures, they have more of a stake in seeing them work. Involving people in decision-making can lower their anxiety; lower absenteeism; and raise the quality of their work. But the involvement must be real: unless the people can help to define the problem and potential solutions, and choose which path of action to take, they may end up distrusting the leader.
Always follow through.
Have someone write up action steps during each meeting. Action steps include a summary of what was decided, what each person has agreed to do (this solidifies commitments and serves as a written reminder), specific deadlines, and the time and purpose of the next meeting. At the next meeting, the first order of business should be the status of the action steps.
Make sure essential roles are filled
Experience has shown that, in the most productive teams, people take on various roles, such as champion, sponsor, and process consultant.
Meetings have gotten a bad rap, because many meetings are unproductive and dull. But they have both a place and a high potential in small and large businesses. Good meetings can increase your effectiveness, customer service, and bottom line.