Taking Out the Garbage Time

I’m not a big process person. I’m not one to sit in meetings, mulling all sides of an issue and then asking for more data, before deferring the decision until later. In my decision-making process, everyone doesn’t have to have a say about everything. My approach occasionally raises eyebrows, but it keeps things moving.

Case in point: For the fourth time in as many weeks, the management meeting with one of my clients last week focused on declining sales. Each previous week the analysis had been the same: each week’s new sales data confirmed what the previous weeks’ data had shown, and each week the action plan was ratified. The consensus was that the industry is in a temporary slump, that things will turn around as soon as my client’s new marketing initiatives kick in, and that filling a regional sales management slot in the most underperforming part of the country will ultimately turn the revenue tide.

So we were all in agreement. But the sales manager remained defensive. On and on he went testifying to some shortcomings in product engineering, to a lack of responsiveness by the reps, and to predatory pricing by the competition. We’d heard it all before, ad nauseum.

“Enough!” I interrupted, uncharacteristically pre-empting the CEO. “Don, you’ve been saying the same thing over and over. Everyone knows what’s happening. You just have to execute!”

It was a lightning bolt hitting the middle of the conference table. For a moment, no one said anything. Then all seven of us realized that the meeting had been hijacked by the apparent need to process one person’s testimony – endlessly. The CEO regained control. He reverted to the agenda and got the meeting back on track. A full twenty minutes had been wasted – more than two man-hours of executive time.

Management meetings can be useful. But they need to be purposeful, structured, and managed. Most of all, an effective management meeting requires discipline by the chair. It’s his or her responsibility to orchestrate the meeting, identifying and calling on people who can add to the discussion and cutting off those who don’t.

What I have distilled from years of fanny fatigue is the following primer for running effective management meetings:

  1. Work from the agenda – One which is distributed a day in advance, with appropriate background materials, will frame the issues and establish expectations of performance in the meeting.
  1. Timeliness – Starting on schedule shows respect for everyone. No backtracking to accommodate late-comers.
  1. The Who – Appropriate participants are those who either contribute or take away information, perspective, and judgment that informs action. Others are wasting their time.
  1. Homework – There’s no need during the meeting to present reports that have been advance-distributed. Presume that people are prepared.
  1. Discipline – The chairperson maintains the focus of the discussion, assigning items for off-line consideration if only two or three people are involved.
  1. For info or for action – Every topic is for one or the other, now or later. Written record, distributed after the meeting and referenced at the next meeting, is made of all of the action decisions and the person responsible.
  1. The Wrap – Again respecting participants’ time, the meeting ends on schedule, the agenda having considered the critical issues first.
  1. Accountability – At the beginning of the next meeting: what’s the status of the action items?

I used to try this approach occasionally at the dinner table. With five kids, I had a recurring illusion that Annie and I could exert some element of control over the conversation. Fat chance. Twenty-five years later, the kids still remember: “Ah, here comes Dad’s agenda,” they’ll say as I introduce a new topic to our (extended) family dinners. They still give me grief about it, but in a quarter of a century at least they’ve become good listeners, even when I ask them to take out the garbage.