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Why do Meetings Start Late, Drag on Forever, and Fail to Accomplish Anything?

Successful meetings are brief, focused, and productive. They happen by design, not by inadvertence. When meetings are run efficiently and effectively, they can begin on time, accomplish the goals for which they are being held, and end on time—and maximize human effort.

How can you maximize the benefits of meetings? By setting ground rules when you first begin a series of meetings. These guide-lines can, then, be used to control fractious behavior when it occurs.

Among the questions that such ground rules should address are the following:

  • Where and when will meetings be held?
  • How will the need for emergency meetings be handled?
  • How long will meetings last?
  • How will decisions be reached?
  • How will the team work with other groups within the organization?
  • Who will be responsible for preparation of meeting minutes?
  • Who will handle communication with senior management, if need be?
  • How will the team handle conflicts and disagreements among its members?
  • Will the team evaluate each session after the fact to help improve subsequent sessions?

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The nature of the meeting will determine the questions raised and their answers. A meeting of staff members headed by you, for instance, will require fewer questions than a cross-functional group meeting in which the heads of various areas of your organization are represented.

When you serve as meeting leader or chair, it’s your task to work with participants to set the ground rules. To stimulate discussion, you might come with some questions prepared in advance. For instance, you might ask, "What was a major problem with the last meeting you attended? What could we do to avoid that problem this time?" Or, "How can we be sure that we stay focused on the agenda?" Or, "What will enable us to manage the discussions without over-controlling the flow of ideas or information?"

Don’t prepare the ground rules on your own. Even if you are meeting with your own employees, and you have every right to set the operating rules for the group, the participants are more likely to follow the rules if they had a voice in their creation. When attendees help write the meeting guidelines, there is greater commitment. Members who don’t follow the ground rules are likely to feel group displeasure, which for many is worse punishment than any one-on-one criticism from you.

Here are some sample ground rules:

  • All meetings will begin and end on schedule.
  • The position of chair will be rotated.
  • Discussion time will be limited to that set on the agenda.
  • Meetings will be held every second Tuesday, from 9:15 to 11:00 a.m, in the conference room.
  • Three days prior to the meeting, members will receive a copy of the agenda and any handouts to read and come prepared for the discussion.
  • The focus will be on issues, not personalities.
  • Only one member will talk at a time.
  • Decisions will be made by consensus.
  • The group will evaluate each meeting to determine progress toward its objective and the quality of the meeting itself.

Such rules will mean nothing if they aren’t followed. If you find they aren’t, you, as a team leader, can interrupt the meeting to remind a member of the meeting’s guidelines. If you are the meeting chair, you might prefer to take the offending member aside during a break or after the meeting.

You also have to follow the rules yourself.