Meetings: Avoiding ‘PowerPoint Hell’ and other Pitfalls

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”  Dave Berry

I confess up front that I despise meetings.  We’ve all worked for or with “that guy” who can’t seem to get enough of them.  He lives by Robert’s Rules of Order, is a self-appointed ‘meeting Parliamentarian’ and always thinks that when it comes to meetings . . . more is always better.  I recently worked for such a board member, and it took a lot of effort to convince him that if the boards of Apple and Google could maintain high performance with quarterly meetings, our tiny nonprofit could reconsider reducing our monthly two-and-a-half hour board meetings to every other month, using a consent agenda.  He was the only board member who lamented the loss of 15 hours worth of meeting time per year.

I reluctantly concede that there are times when meeting are necessary – board meetings, for example.  But sometimes, it seems as though meetings are convened to remind everyone who is boss.  Worse, an ED will call for a staff meeting in order for build consensus around a non-essential issue to or appear ‘democratic’ in decision-making – code for “I can’t be decisive”.

The truth of the matter is that in today’s progressive organization, too many meetings serve as a breeding ground for mind-numbing busy-work.  They frustrate your most productive staff who are busy trying to change the world, and they just aren’t necessary for most decision-making.  In today’s market, executive directors are empowering staff to make independent decisions on important issues.  Micro-management is out; staff empowerment is in.

So . . . you still feel compelled to have a meeting, alright then.  Since you’ve made that decision, here are some tips on how to wring the most productivity out of the meeting, and to minimize their drain on energy, motivation and time.

Select “Neutral Turf”: Select ‘neutral turf’ for meetings, such as a conference room or common area.  Particularly if there’s a punitive or uncomfortable aspect of the meeting, it’s important to eliminate any territorial or posturing behavior.  Don’t meet in your office – you’re on your own turf.  Also, resist holding meetings in high-traffic public places, such as coffee shops.  There are simply too many distractions competing for attention that conspire to prolong the meeting.  It seems like common sense, but I’m amazed at how frequently I observe small group meetings at coffee shops and restaurants – nobody seems to be paying attention.

Timing:  Consider optimal meeting time.  We all have natural energy cycles – those times during the day when our energy is highest, and when it wanes.  If most of your staff are at their peak energy during late morning, this is a good time to have meetings involving strategic planning, complex problem-solving and brainstorming.  During productivity lulls (mine tends to be from 3:30-4:15 p.m.) introduce ‘softer material’ – routine information transfer, staffing issues, etc.  Try to keep meetings to 30 minutes or less.  Studies show that adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 40 minutes at a time – why push the envelope?

Why Are We Here?:  Ask yourself if it’s even appropriate to convene a meeting.  Could you convey the information in an email to a listserv?  In a memo?  Through a one-on-one conversation or small group session?  If you decide that a meeting really is necessary, request that somebody take brief notes concerning the highlights (preferably bullet points, so that they’re not wasting valuable time transcribing detailed notes) and distribute them within 24 hours.

Start with Small Groups:  Invite only those individuals who are primarily invested in the outcomes of the meeting.  It’s probably not necessary for all staff members to attend every meeting, and in fact, productivity levels of meetings of more than 10 individuals declines precipitously over time.  Smaller groups are more focused and motivated – keep it small.

Agenda:  Have one; that goes without saying.  Be sure to distribute a first draft of the agenda in advance of the meeting so that all participants have sufficient time to review it.  If people want to add items to the agenda, establish a “respond by” date and time and stick to it!  If participants miss the deadline, their agenda item should be either side-lined until the next meeting, or placed in a “parking lot”. If time permits at the end of the regularly-scheduled meeting, parking lot items can be discussed.

Be Succinct:  Not every agenda item needs to be discussed ad nauseum from every perspective.  Discussion of items should be encouraged if it remains on topic, but if discussion proceeds without a perceptible endpoint, declare the item either ‘tabled’ for another time if it’s not a high-priority, or declare an executive decision on an outcome.  Maintain forward momentum of the agenda.

Start and End on Time:  Unless you’re the only one present, start exactly when you said you would.  Consider beginning at an unconventional time – say, 2:17 p.m.  Human nature being what it is, participants will arrive at 2:15 p.m. – you can then start promptly at 2:17 p.m.

“Meeting” ≠ “Conversation”:  If at any point during the meeting an agenda item involves a discussion solely between two people, request that they meet offline to discuss the issue.  Move the meeting along.

“PowerPoint Hell”:  When you walk into a meeting and the facilitator has a PowerPoint presentation loaded, you know you’re in meeting Hell.  Don’t be ‘that person’.  If you generate illustrations (graphs, charts, etc.) using PowerPoint, simplify and expedite the process by bringing handouts to the meeting.  Nobody is impressed by overkill use of technology and time to convey what could easily be stated through a handout and a well-articulated discussion.

Manage Personalities (Or They Will Manage You):  Discourage personal stories, jokes, and off-topic issues.  Though congenial, such diversions diffuse focus, energy, and undermine efforts to begin and end meetings in a timely manner.  More importantly, participants should be encouraged to respect and encourage a diversity of opinions, perspectives and experiences.  Incivility is rapidly increasing in the workplace, and you should adopt a proactive role to eliminate behaviors that are rude or discourteous and conveys disrespect to others.  I’ve suffered through many meetings where a board meeting was rude, abrasive and disrespectful to staff and even fellow board members.  The result was resentment, stalemate over every issue, mistrust, and loss of confidence in the organization’s leadership.  Do yourself a favor – adopt a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ for incivility – during meetings and in all workplace interactions.

Avoid Meetings At All Cost!: How do you know if absolutely must call a meeting?  Test the importance of a meeting by asking yourself, “What happens without it?” If your answer is, “Nothing,” then don’t call the meeting.  I assure you… your staff will love you for it.

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


One comment

  1. sorry, I just read this now. I was tied up in a meeting!!

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