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Tips for Running Smooth Meetings

Holding meetings where everyone is focused on the objectives of the meeting is getting more and more difficult with the advent of devices that distract the attention of participants. We started out with cell phones – remember hearing those bizarre ring tones for the first time? We moved on to Blackberrys (or Crackberrys as they are sometimes called). Meeting participants would be lost for large portions of the meeting when they were alerted to an "important” message they just had to respond to. Now we have the iPhone to contend with, the difficulty factor has increased again.

The technology that distracts the participants at our meetings is not going to go away. It’s here to stay so we have to find strategies to cope with it. You may not be able to prevent meeting participants from taking an important call, but there are things you can do to limit the damage when the important call comes. There are also some things you can do to protect the sanctity of your meetings from the more trivial interruptions. Here are some tips to help you get the most from your meetings with the least fuss.

  • Spell out a behavior code for your meetings. Don’t make communications devices the only focus of your code; there are many other behaviors that are distracting and you shouldn’t single cell phones, Blackberrys, and iPhones out. Some simple rules that will help you keep your meetings on track are:
  • Meeting participants should announce at the beginning of a face to face meeting they are attending that they may receive an important call or e-mail that they must answer. There are many reasons a call may be critical such as a mission critical system failing. A support person receiving such a call will have to answer it.
  • Anyone receiving an important call which they must take should leave the room while they are on the call. If they have to leave the meeting as a result of the call, they should gather their effects from the meeting room as unobtrusively as possible.
  • Devices should be turned to vibrate during the meeting. You’ll find that a vibrating phone or Blackberry that triggers a person leaving the room is relatively non-disruptive, especially if the participant has warned the meeting of the possibility of this happening.
  • Participants should not use the meeting to answer e-mails. One of the most maddening experiences for a meeting facilitator is to attempt to engage participants’ attention only to end up talking to the top of the participants head while they gossip on their Blackberry (or laptop). Important e-mails could be an exception to this rule, but there should be a limit on the number of e-mails responded to and the amount of time spent responding.
  • Have your team sign up to the rules. This will mean giving them input to codifying the rules and some degree of flexibility on your part. Post the agreed to rules in meeting rooms, after they are finalized. Make sure that each team member is aware of, and understands, the rules.
  • Meetings which require participants to contribute, such as brainstorming sessions, should not be interrupted by communications devices. It’s not unreasonable for you to ask your participants to leave their communications devices at their desks or in their offices, if you have provided sufficient advance notice of your meeting. Attendees with critical jobs such as support staff are an exception, but they can at least abide by the meeting rules set out above.
  • Communications devices can interfere with audio conference equipment such as Polycoms when they are in close proximity. Ask remote meeting participants to set their devices to "mute” while they aren’t talking.

Don’t get rattled when someone breaks the meeting rules. When the infraction is distracting the other meeting participants (such as talking on a phone), ask the offender to take the call outside the room. Otherwise, approach the offender after the meeting, point out the infraction and the effect it had on the meeting.

People who refuse to abide by the rules your team has adopted may have to be dealt with as behavior issues. Just make sure the punishment fits the crime and that you have HR support for your actions.

Protecting meetings from intrusions by communications devices is a two way street. Don’t bore your meeting participants to the point where they start making phone calls and answering e-mails to escape the meeting. Some suggestions for keeping your audience engaged:

  • Always create a meeting agenda with agenda items listed against times and the participants who will speak to them.
  • Don’t allow the meeting to become a debate between two of the participants. Capture any issues that arise and cannot be agreed upon in the room in your issue log and move on.
  • Don’t use overheads as a means to present page after page of facts and figures. Office productivity tools such as PowerPoint offer a variety of tools for spicing up your presentations; use them.
  • Ask questions of your participants to keep them engaged.
  • Keep your meetings as brief as possible. Your participants’ time is valuable and should not be wasted. End the meeting early if the objectives have been met in less time than you allowed.
  • Don’t be afraid to cancel a regularly scheduled meeting if there have been no significant changes since the last meeting.

These tips won’t eliminate all intrusions from communications devices, but they should at least make the ones you must endure, endurable.