Quick&dirty guide to: meetings

Howard Flomberg — №5 with Luis Miguel Urrea Guía

— “Terri, there’s a product meeting at 3 o’clock”
— “3 o’clock on a Friday? What lamebrain set it up?”
— “Check the Email, Terri”
— “Oh.”

Shall I list problems that come up?

After the prerequisite hour, Terri tries to call the meeting over, her boss, however has decided that since everyone is here — let’s talk about the Christmas party. 

Sound familiar?

It is said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee¹. This saying sums up the popular opinion of committees and meetings. The general consensus is that a committee can do nothing successfully. Let me rephrase that: an unorganized committee can do nothing successfully. You can easily substitute the word “meeting” for the word “committee” they are essentially interchangeable as far as accomplishments. Most qualitative methodologies and decisions involve (evolve in?) meetings. In many, if not most, cases meetings become massive time wasters. In an uncontrolled environment, meetings can and frequently do become confrontational. People tend to go off in tangents and the reason for the meeting rapidly becomes lost. So, how does one control a meeting? Or can a meeting be controlled?

Prepare an Agenda

Without an agenda you are wasting everybody’s time. The agenda should spell out, in some real level of detail, the reason for the meeting as well as the topic to be discussed. For example:


To: H. Aardvark, C. Jones, L. Lopez, M Miles, P. J. Peterson, S. Sutra and Z. Zaplitney
From: H. Lee
Date: 07/04/76
Re: Corporate strategy, 07/05/1776 Meeting Room A. at 10:00 a.m.

We will be meeting next Thursday to discuss the orientation of our new product, the American Revolution. The Specific Topics to be discussed are:

Tactics – will we fight in an open plain or shall we be hiding behind trees?

Uniforms – Mr. Washington has requested Buff and Blue, however Mr. Rogers-Clark insists that forest green would give us a decided advantage

Living quarters – shall we have the men supply their own tents or can we standardize? If we standardize, we need to appoint a subcommittee to recommend a supplier and pricing.

Rank Structure – Mr. Washington insists on traditional military ranks; however our Boston contingent feels that the men should elect their own leaders.

How shall we decide these issues?

Please email your acceptance to the meeting. If you cannot make this meeting, please tell me who will be representing you.

—“Lighthorse” Harry Lee

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Prepare an Agenda. Without an agenda you are wasting everybody’s time. The agenda should spell out, in some real level of detail, the reason for the meeting as well as the topic to be discussed. See the example above.

  2. The names in the agenda memorandum are in alphabetic order. Yes there are people who look at these things as an indication of political power. Head that one off. As a matter of fact, alphabetize the names in all memos that you write.

  3. Topic, time, date and location are prominently placed at the top. Insure that everybody knows the location of the meeting. A fast email the day before the meeting containing this information is not a bad idea. Sending out more than one email IS a bad idea.

  4. Each topic has a brief description. If there is a to be decision, indicate the choices. Any more detail is not needed. This is your guide for the meeting. Stick to these issues. Putting too much information just invites more discussion.

  5. When you send the agenda out, ask for an RSVP. If you are emailing — generate a return receipt. You want to head off the “I didn’t know about the meeting.” If they approve a return receipt, they’ll show up. If your company uses a scheduling program like Outlook use it.

  6. Don’t make meetings on Fridays please? Especially during the spring and fall. 10:00 in the morning is always a good meeting time — it’s long enough before lunch so that they can still sneak out for an early lunch. 1:00 is deadly. People will straggle in. they will be sleepy and non-participatory. If you schedule a meeting for 3:00 (especially Friday at 3:00) you will get what you deserve. If I am an invitee — I’ll totally forget it.

  7. The memo must go out at least one full business day before the meeting. Two or three days would be much better. More than three days would invite people to conveniently forget. When you see the person in the hallway, you might remind him² once. Any more than that and you will see him avoid you like the proverbial plague. One of my favorite ways to remind someone is to joke — Don’t forget Terri, you’re bringing the booze to the meeting.

  8. At the beginning of the meeting review the agenda. If someone wants to add something relevant to the agenda — ask if everyone agrees. If it’s not relevant, see the discussion below on the “parking lot”

  9. Do not allow the meeting to go for more than one and a half hours. Schedule another session if there is a need. Here’s why – you have six (?) people in a small room. In today’s offices’ you need a wrecking ball to open a window. Of course you close the door. Now you have a bunch of Homosapiens all busy converting oxygen to carbon dioxide in a room with poor ventilation. And you wonder why you get sleepy? It’s oxygen deprivation³.

  10. The Parking Lot. So Terri brings up her favorite complaint – the striping in the parking lot. He is concerned that someone might trash her ’71 Gremlin. Set up a “Parking Lot.” Have a place to record topics that need resolution outside of the meeting. It should be either a black/white board or a large sheet of paper in plain view to everyone. So you now say: Terri, we really do need to discuss that, let’s put it in the Meeting Parking Lot. This is your secret weapon! You can get poster sized “yellow stickies”⁴ from your office supplies vendor. Stash them somewhere. Once someone finds out that you have the stickies, they will disappear. Take one sheet and put it on the wall. Label it “Parking Lot”. The parking lot is where you put those items that will take you down the wrong path. But by posting them you have assuaged Terri’s ego. Her idea has been recognized and not ignored. You’ll find that in a relaxed environment, after a while when someone brings up an item that is not appropriate, you’ll hear a chorus of “parking lot” and laughter.

  11. Danger Will Robinson! If at all possible, do not invite your manager (or your manager’s manager for that matter). If you do, the meeting becomes his meeting. If you must invite him — establish privately the procedure that you are going to follow and get his support. If he refuses to follow your wishes – get your resume in shape. This one can be a career ender if handled poorly. Try and make that discussion with your boss light. Review the agenda, ask for his opinion, let him know you’ll give him a full report, before he says he’ll be there.

  12. Again, if a topic is brought up that is not on the agenda – steer the conversation back to the agenda — reschedule a meeting to discuss that point or put it on the “parking lot.”

  13. If you notice each item in the agenda is phrased as an “Action Item”. For example: Living quarters — shall we have the men supply their own tents or can we standardize? If we standardize, we need to appoint a subcommittee to recommend a supplier and pricing. Discuss each item. If it is too large or important to settle at the meeting have someone follow up on it or schedule another meeting. If you ask, ”Who wants to follow up on this?” in most cases you will be greeted by a wall of silence. Ask someone with an interest in the topic to follow up. “Terri, can you follow up on this?” Everyone is relieved that you didn’t ask him or her and is staring at Terri. You now have peer pressure working for you. At the end of the meeting, review the action items. Note who has taken the action, if an action has not been resolved either schedule a meeting to discuss it, or appoint a volunteer.

  14. Ensure that every issue is either resolved or assigned to a person at the meeting for resolution. After the meeting, review each Parking Lot item. Have someone assigned to it. A sneaky way to control these items is to ask: Terri, you brought up ‘Parking Lot Striping” can you follow up on it? Terri will never do that again.

  15. Another real important item — If you must ask someone to take notes — NEVER ask a woman. She will hate you for the rest of your life.

  16. After the meeting send out a memo promptly reviewing the decisions and any topics assigned to someone. Send this memo out immediately, even if you have to stay late to do it. List each action item, who it is assigned to and how will it be reviewed. Don’t forget the use a return receipt. If you ask: “Please let me know if you disagree” you probably will not get any response until it’s too late, and someone has been ticked off. More successful is the language: “I assume that if no one responds by the end of the week then there are no corrections”. Always take an active position.

  17. One last point — Spell check the damn thing! One learns by screwing up. We all do. When I was interviewing for a consulting spot, one of my favorite lines was “I’ve been doing this for many years and I’ve made a gazillion mistakes. You get them all for free” Hopefully I’ve saved you from some of them.

¹ Now you know why there’s a camel on the cover.

² Is my use of “him” offensive to anyone? If so please accept my apology.

³ I am NOT a doctor or a chemist. This is a totally non-scientific guess — but it’s based on years of experience

⁴ I call all Post-its “Yellow Stickies” no matter what color they are. That should be my worst habit.

Photo: Flickr / johan wieland CC BY-ND 2.0

Howard flomberg

Howard Flomberg

Howard Flomberg is a retired Systems Analyst, Adjunct Professor and author. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

Follow @hflomberg on Twitter