NOI Tip of the Day: Dealing with Meeting Fatigue

March 11, 2013
By Alex Showerman | 0 comments

By Mia Moore, Chief of Staff

When I was an idealistic student activist at the University of Wisconsin (go Badgers!), I saw Michael Moore speak at an environmental conference. The only thing I remember from his address was his admonishment to 'Stop holding meetings! Meetings are a waste of time! Go out there and get the work done!'

I imagine that anyone working in politics - a field known for its verbose, opinionated workforce - has at one time or another looked around a meeting and asked herself 'What the eff am I doing here? How is this helping me achieve my goals? What is the point of this meeting?'

The thing is, I'm not sure Michael Moore was right. Getting the appropriate players together to collaborate on a project is necessary for success; we are political organizers and don't work in a vacuum. We have ambitious goals and can't do it all ourselves. We often need our teammates to keep us accountable to our deadlines. And there are ways to make meetings work. 

Carson Tate offered some tips in a recent column in the New York Times and Allison Green of Ask a Manager wrote a post ages ago with some great advice on this topic. Here are my favorites from each, plus a few things I myself have learned over the years.

  • Determine if the meeting is necessary in the first place. What is the point, what will you accomplish in this time together? What actions will result from this meeting? Could you achieve those accomplishments or actions without holding a meeting? If all you want is a round of updates, could that happen in a memo to the whole group? If you’re looking for quick answers to just a few questions, could you do that with a simple email survey?
  • Prepare. Write an agenda that flows from the goals you have for the meeting. If you don't have an agenda, that's a good sign you don't need the meeting in the first place (see point one above). Your agenda must be specific. Each topic should have the outcome you want to see as a result of it being on the agenda, and the amount of time you are allotting to that topic. Share the agenda with all participants. This way everyone who is part of the meeting knows the expectation going in and will be as committed as you are to a productive meeting. [ED: I remember this being extremely helpful when I was a student organizer, but somewhere in my career I forgot about the usefulness of this technique and stopped doing it. I started back up just recently and the meetings I run have become far more efficient and productive.]
  • Prepare. Make sure you have all the information and materials you need to support the discussion. If there are others who will play a role in the meeting (i.e. making a presentation or doing some research ahead of time to answer questions), check in with those folks prior to the meeting. Give them enough leeway to get themselves prepared. In some cases, it will take you the same amount of time to prepare for the meeting as the meeting itself.
  • Start on time. Those who arrive late will get the message, or they will miss the content you have to cover and that’s their problem. If you start late, all meetings will eventually begin to start later and later, wasting more and more staff time.
  • Stay awake. When was the last time you were in a meeting and didn’t zone out? As the facilitator, you have to pay attention to every single speaker, to ensure each remains on topic and is contributing toward the end goals of the meeting.
  • Parking lot. This is a great technique for dealing with the topics that come up which weren’t on the agenda and aren’t related to the goals of the meeting. You can come back to them at a later time, but they are not what this meeting is about. It’s important to note that sometimes issues will come up that you didn’t include on the agenda but are related to the goals of the meeting. In those moments, you as the facilitator can make the call to let the conversation play out or shift the topic to a different point in the agenda or put it in the parking lot.
  • Take action. Every meeting ought to end with clear, actionable items, a delegation of responsibility of those items and a deadline for completion. You or your designated deputy should record this in the minutes of the meeting and share it with all participants.
These all seem pretty obvious, right? However, I bet as you read them you were remembering a recent meeting at which they DID NOT happen. Running productive meetings - or, as I like to call it, “Getting Shit Done” - isn’t rocket science. But it does require thorough thought and planning, which takes time. And you don’t have to believe me when I tell you that the investment up front pays off big time, just try one or two of them with the next meeting you organize. What have you got to lose?

What about you? Have you got any meeting horror stories to share? How do you manage to make meetings work for you? When was the last time you were satisfied at the end of a meeting? Have you ever not attended a meeting that had no agenda?

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