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Making Meetings Work - A Step by Step Guide

By Robert Woods and Florence Berger
April 2010

Meetings occupy 50 to 60 percent of the average manager's workweek. Although many managers regard meetings as a waste of time they can be a useful way of accomplishing several desired activities at once — disseminating information, bolstering morale, identifying problems, and reaching decisions.
Most organizations have many policies and procedures. Yet, few have such guidelines for meetings, despite their cost. Considering that hundreds of managers attend hundreds of meetings yearly, the annual cost is staggering. While virtual meetings are growing in popularity, most are still face-to-face.
This article presents guidelines for planning and conducting business meetings. The key to significantly reducing costs is to follow the guidelines consistently.
Meeting Rules
Groups are more creative and make better decisions than individuals. The more diverse the group the better the decision. Homogeneous groups spend about 5% of their time identifying problems which heterogeneous groups of different people spend 15-20% of their time in problem identification. Diverse groups provide a larger pool of information, a greater variety of opinions, abilities, personalities, perspectives, and more creative decisions. The inclusion of participants who have never previously attended meetings on these topics further enhances meeting outcome quality.
The quality of group decisions is just one of several reasons to conduct meetings.  While the stated purpose of meeting is often to either exchange information or solve problems, they serve many other goals, including those listed below.
  • Meetings often create a spirit of unity and cooperation that contributes to the formation of a collective identity.
  • Attendance and participation in meetings leads to participant buy-in, which minimizes negative after-effects of decisions.
  • Meetings augment communication by creating a pool of shared knowledge.
  • Meetings provide a forum in which to generate new ideas.
  • Meetings present an opportunity for managers to define and promote the collective goals of the organization.
  • Meetings offer a setting in which company leaders can act like leaders on a very visible level.
  • Meetings encourage participation and feedback from those who have not previously attended a meeting on the meeting topics.
Define Objectives
Meetings lacking clear objectives waste time. Meeting chairs can assure meaningful meetings by asking the following questions in advance:
What is this meeting intended to achieve?
What would happen if we did not hold this meeting?
How do we measure the success of this meeting?
Who should attend?
What items should be on the agenda?
What is the best format for this meeting?
Where, when and how should this meeting be held?
Planning Meetings
Planning is critical to success. Good meeting planning includes the following items:
The agenda .  A good agenda contains:
  • Topics to be discussed
  • Starting and ending time of meeting
  • Location
  • Reason and objectives for meeting
  • A list of individuals attending
  • A short summary of topics to be discussed
  • Any supporting documents
  • A reminder to record the schedule of future meetings.
Agendas should be circulated several days prior to the meeting to allow time for the participants to prepare. This also facilitates advance consideration of each topic by the chair.
Timing topics. Topics that require creativity should come first. Attendees are likely freshest then. Topics of high interest can come later when interest lags. The most controversial topics should come near the end to reduce early bickering. The final topic should be one upon which all agree so that meeting will end on a positive note.
Selecting participants. Most business meetings function best with eight to ten participants. Include only those who need to attend.
Setting the time. Meetings that require more creativity should be planned earlier in the day, short meetings are best during busy times of the day and long working sessions are best in the afternoon. Scheduling meetings right before lunch or at the end of the day tends to encourage participants to stay on topic.  Most groups can sustain sufficient attention and energy to work efficiently for only 90-120 minutes
Choosing the place.  Meeting settings convey meaning. For instance, holding a meeting in the president's office serves to emphasize the importance of the topic but suggest formality.
Seating arrangements. Seating arrangements affect progress.  Adversaries will choose seats opposite one another and with their supporters on left and right of them. If controversy is anticipated the chair should assign seating.
Stressing promptness. Starting and ending times should be stated on the agenda and those who arrive late or leave early should be noted in minutes. Summarizing for late-arrivers takes valuable meeting time and allows the opportunity for someone to take control of the meeting.
Meeting tools.  The planner is responsible for ensuring that materials, equipment and refreshments for the meeting are ready. Call presenters if necessary to assess their needs. Refreshments should be noted on the agenda.
Last-minute contact.  Reminding participants the day before encourages them to attend.
Meeting Leader’s Role
The chair’s primary responsibility is to facilitate the meeting. Good chairs generally listen more than they talk.
Chair participation. If the purpose of the meeting is information dissemination the chair may talk more. If the purpose is to solve problems the chair should focus on the group process. Chairs talk for one of five reasons:
  1. to review agenda and topics
  2. to give credit for good ideas
  3. to encourage the participation
  4. to keep the meeting on track
  5. to summarize discussion
Facilitating tasks.  Problem-solving meetings are successful when all members participate and when the group makes all of the necessary decisions. Adherence to an orderly process keeps the meeting on track.  An example of an orderly process is:
  • identifying the problem(s)
  • noting pertinent facts
  • searching for alternatives
  • selecting a solution
  • determining the best method of implementation
  • anticipating reaction by stakeholders
Writing each step on a flipchart tends to aid in this process by providing a visual guide that shows the progress of the discussion. 
The chair's opinion.  Chairs are facilitators. Chairs should seek advocates when stating their own opinions.
Reaching consensus.  Some decisions are made with votes, others require consensus. If voting, the chair determines when by summarizing points made. If consensus is required, the chair summarizes points made, asks for short final comments and presents possible solutions.
The chair as navigator. When topics are controversial the chair might find it necessary to allow participants to speak only when called upon.
Closing the meeting.  It is time to close the meeting when it becomes clear that:
  • the facts are in and all participants have been heard
  • additional discussion can be handled by a sub-committee
  • if more time will be needed on certain topics--the meeting should end
The chair then summarizes accomplishments and decisions made and clearly states follow-up responsibilities. The last item on agenda should be one on which all will agree to breed positive cooperation. The final item on most agendas will be scheduling the next meeting.
Follow-up: Meeting Minutes
Meeting minutes summarize the discussions, and confirm meeting decisions and actions.
Minutes also contain the meeting date, location and starting and ending time; the names of the chair and participants (including later arrivers and early departers); the date, time, and location of the next meeting, Minutes should focus on actions taken, not discussion minutiae, and should be distributed within 24 hours. The task of taking minutes should be given to a staff person, or in the alternative, a volunteer from among the attendees.
Attaching copies or pictures of flipcharts used in meeting will remind participants of important discussion items.
Planning Pays Off
Productive meetings that contribute to the achievement of an organization's goals do not happen by accident.  Successful meetings are the result of careful planning, effective leadership and timely conscientious follow-up -- the same elements that ensure success in other aspects of a manager's job.  The time a manager devotes to planning good meetings is time well spent, since no other activity offers as many potential benefits to an organization.  Good meetings accomplish necessary work, obtain broad support for decisions, enhance participants' sense of their value and importance within the organization, and build a spirit of unity and cooperation.

Bob Woods
Bob Woods holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the Cornell Hotel School.  In 2000, Bob joined the faculty at the Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV as a full Professor, and has served as the Chair of the Hotel Management Department. Education is a second career for Bob; he worked in the restaurant industry, beginning in college in 1969 until 1985 when he sold the last of his twelve restaurants and returned to college to complete his MS and PH.D. degrees.  Bob is the author of some 150+ scholarly journal articles, four books, 13 book chapters and numerous non-academic publications. His Human Resources in the Hospitality Industry (published by the Educational Institute of the AH&LA) is the best selling HR book in hospitality.

Dr. Florence Berger
 Dr. Florence Berger is a professor emeritus of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and a Member of Cayuga Hospitality Advisors.  She taught courses in organizational behavior and human relations skills, hospitality industry training and creative management for organizational change. Recently she and her co-author, Judi Brownell, published Organizational Behavior for the Hospitality Industry with Prentice Hall.  Florence and Judi have also developed six eCornell courses: Managing Yourself More Effectively, Managing Dynamic Teams, Executive Decision Making with Bayesian Analysis, Leading through Creativity, Creating Service Cultures and Secrets of Phenomenal Customer Service. Florence has a Master’s Degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Cornell University.  In 1999, Dr. Berger received Cornell University’s highest teaching award, the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Reprinted with permission from Cayuga Hospitality Review.  All rights reserved.


Cayuga Hospitality Advisors

Cayuga Hospitality Advisors Articles of Interest:

Demand Management: An Update* / Bill Carroll and Mac Noden / April 2010
Investment Decision Criteria for the Gaming Industry - Time to Revisit and Review / Stephen Sherf / March 2010
2010: A Year of Challenges for Restaurants; Thriving in Another Tumultuous Year / Michael Lukianoff / February 2010
Make Sure the Right Contingency Plans Are in Place; Secrets of a Hotel Asset Manager / Jim Burr / October 2009
Update on Adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) for the U.S. Hospitality Industry / October 2009
Do You Think Like a Leader or a Manager? / William P. Fisher. Ph.D. / October 2009
A Wake Up Call, The Shadow of 9/11: Terrorism and Premises Liability for Hotels / Carroll Dubuc / September 2009
You Need to Reset Your Exit Strategy / Jim Burr / September 2009
The Electronic Guestroom / Jules A. Sieburgh / September 2009
LEADERSHIP: The Basis for Management / William P. Fisher Ph.D. / September 2009

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