To make meetings more productive, try thinking “return on effort”

For most business owners and executives a staggering amount of time each week is spent in internal meetings and in all too many cases the operative word is “spent.” Today’s post suggests a refreshing way to approach meetings and to increase their value. If you are one of the many who finds yourself asking, “What do I have to show for the time I spent in meetings last week?” this post (first of a series) is for you.

Invest effort rather than spend time. Low or no expectations will almost inevitably result in low or no results. Asking yourself what “return on effort” is expected from a meeting or from a series of interrelated meetings can help you expect more and focus on results. For example, for an all-hands meeting to introduce a new employee to his/her coworkers, the expected return on effort is a more productive and engaged new employee. Or, for a series of meetings about development of a new product, the return on effort may be alignment of design, marketing, manufacturing, finance and general management expectations and plans as the new offering progresses.

Prepare for success. Once you start thinking in terms of investing effort, it becomes easier to see how and when preparation pays off. In the case of the all-hands meeting to welcome a new employee, preparation might be as simple as making sure everyone knows in advance the new person’s name, what he or she will be doing initially, and that it is important to make him/her feel welcome. For the new product example, preparation will be more complex with agendas, documents, and presentations from the different departments involved, all of which should support alignment across different functional areas.

Engage participants. Thinking in terms of return on effort affords an answer to the question “Why are we having this meeting?” and ideally commands attention. When participants know the meeting has a purpose, it will be easier for them to be mentally present as well as physically present. This need not be a formal pronouncement. A simple statement such as, “We are all here today to make sure we resolve the problem with XYZ. Is everyone ready to get started?” will often suffice to let those present know that their time and attention is valued.

Try to handle bad habits and distractions such as email or texting during meetings constructively at the beginning of the meeting by saying, “I know we are all busy and want to stay on top of our email and messages, does anyone have something that can’t wait?” If the meeting is scheduled to last more than an hour, consider scheduling one or more breaks to take care of urgent emails.

Get started. All changes in attitude are difficult and walking the walk usually works better than making grand proclamations. To see if the “return on effort” approach to meetings might be useful to you, try looking at the internal meetings you attend next week from a “return on effort” perspective. Are you disappointed or pleasantly surprised? If you identify opportunities for improvement, start with a single practical change that is likely to payoff quickly.

For example, if weekly staff meetings are frustrating, you might start by saying, “I’ve been thinking about our weekly staff meeting. Let’s try to resolve more issues on the spot. I’ll send out a list of items the day before we meet so we can address as many as possible quickly.” The challenge will then be to get a few wins that reinforce the change in approach. Once you have some momentum you can turn your attention to applying “return on effort” to other meetings.

In addition to the “return on effort” approach I am advocating here, I have some novel meeting formats and a few favorite techniques that you may want to try. I’ll write about those next time.

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2013. All rights reserved.

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