I have had several recent requests about how to improve a common type of meeting.  This type goes by names like “department update” or “quarterly briefing meeting”.  It’s usually a time for the leader to provide information to the staff and, possibly, to take a few questions.  We’ve all been in these meetings – how effective are they, and could they be better?  I even wonder if they are true “meetings?”

What do I mean by “meeting?  I describe effective meetings in terms of their function: leaders rely on meetings to get work done.  Most often this means some decisions need to be reached, either by the group or by the leader based on the group’s input.  Some dialogue or discussion is presumed to be necessary or else a given item wouldn’t be on the agenda.

But what about the department update meeting? Such a meeting is typically held for communicating information.  Generally, it is not intended for an exchange of ideas, discussion and decision-making among those present.  Meetings held as communication sessions can be very appropriate.  Good communication is certainly a leadership responsibility. Unfortunately, many “update meetings” are poorly designed as there has been too little attention given to finding the best means of getting timely information to those who need it.  Instead of scheduling the “monthly” update meeting, I recommend that leaders first ask themselves if it is a good use of everyone’s time.  Is this the best way for everyone to get this information?  And do they all need the same information? If you don’t need to bring participants together to share information, then maybe there is a more efficient way to accomplish the necessary communication.

To improve this kind of meeting, I suggest we look less to advice on how to hold a meeting, and more to information on good communication practices.  What’s necessary is to be clear about what information is needed by whom, in what detail, and on what schedule.  Then consider what is the most appropriate medium.  Listening to someone present information to us is one of the least effective and efficient means of communication.

When the department update meeting is also intended to be a two-way exchange of ideas, for questions and comments on some plans, then the meeting may be more than a one-way communication of information.  In such cases there may in fact be some real work to be done by the group gathered together.  But beware those meetings that are 90% presentation and 10% “time for a few questions” at the end.  I doubt that there is much real work being done.  Such meetings may not be the best use of everyone’s time.

Some people have questioned my insistence on defining a meeting as something a leader holds to get work done with a group.  Surely I don’t mean that all meetings are held to do work together, to reach decisions or make plans (another kind of decision)?  Well, this is exactly what I mean.  I think we allow the term “meeting” to cover a wide range of group gatherings at our peril.  If we aren’t clear on what we mean by “meeting,” then its no wonder that many of us find that meetings are a waste of time.

I share more of my views on how to structure effective meetings in earlier posts and on this web site (www.meetingforresults.com).


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