How to...

Subject: How to...
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Kevin McLauchlan <kmclauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 01 Aug 2007 13:46:18 -0400

Kevin McLauchlan reports: <<I just spent yet-another 15 minutes in a
conference room, trying to participate in a "monthly" half-hour-ish
meeting. Between a couple of key empty seats at the table, and
several no-shows on the conference call-in, we couldn't get a useful
quorum... again. Fourth time in two weeks (or was it fifth??) that
this meeting failed to get under way.>>

The cure for this is twofold: First, to get the relevant managers to
make it clear that participation in the meeting is not optional. If
they don't believe this to be the case, forget about trying to force
anyone else to attend. You can still do it, but you'll need to be
substantially more persuasive. Sometimes you even have to do little
powerplays, such as: "Dear program manager: Your engineer informed us
today that he found no problems with the documentation and thus, felt
it unnecessary to attend the meeting. Please thank him for his
diligent review of the documentation, and see that he gets his
appropriate reward come appraisal time."*

*OK, you want to be just a bit less nasty about this. Your goal is to
make it clear that the person was invited to participate, couldn't or
wouldn't do it, and instead provided an opinion outside the meeting.
If they did a good job, they should be rewarded for this. If they
didn't... they should also be <ahem> rewarded.

Second, if you know you need to arrange a meeting, send out an
announcement 1 month in advance offering a range of dates for the
meeting, and ask people to confirm their availability*. Pick a date
when the majority (or the most important people for a given meeting)
will be available. Then, 2 weeks before the meeting, send out a
reminder and an agenda. Ask anyone whose plans have changed (often
through no fault of their own) to provide their inputs in writing or
in person (catch them at lunch, for instance). Send out another
reminder a few days before the meeting.

* Most office software, including Outlook, offers this as a built-in

No guarantees, but letting people choose times when they know they're
going to be available, and giving them alternative ways to
participate if they can't attend, greatly increases participation in
my experience.

Also note that if your only agenda item is "status update", nobody in
their right mind will voluntarily attend--and why should they? Simply
ask them to send out an e-mail containing their contribution to the
status update. Sometimes the correct agenda for a meeting is not to
hold a meeting--just a quick e-mail exchange to ensure that
everyone's on track.

<<Does anybody have a nice, concise guide to herding cats?>>

The other thing to keep in mind is the famous saying that meetings
are "places where minutes are saved and hours wasted". Create an
agenda, stick to it rigorously* unless something truly special comes
up, and make sure everyone has a chance to think about the agenda for
several days before the meeting so that they come prepared. (Provide
necessary incentives to ensure that they actually do this.) If
something must be added to the agenda at the last possible instant,
think hard about whether you can productively discuss this or really
need a day or a few hours to think about it and a separate meeting to
discuss it.

* I've chaired a great many meetings over the years, with up to
around 20 people attending. A couple times, I've told a Very
Important Person "that's all very well, but we don't have time to
discuss it now -- how about a new meeting tomorrow?" You have to use
this approach carefully, but I've made it stick with VIPs up to
Executive Director level. They usually aren't accustomed to being
interrupted in this way, but if handled diplomatically, even bigwigs
will settle down and stick to the agenda. Don't even think of trying
this if you don't know the VIP well and have enough credibility to
get away with it. But if you do, it's awfully satisfying to "pull
rank". <g>

<<Oh.... no, it's not my meeting. I rarely call meetings. It's one to
which I get called... and called... and called... and I'd like to
help the poor woman have a fighting chance>>

If the meeting is important to you, why not offer to chair it for
her, and take over the arrangements? I've done that too. Few people
like chairing meetings, and those oddballs like me who do are always
appreciated when we relieve someone of an unwanted responsibility.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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How to...: From: Kevin McLauchlan

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