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How to make meetings more effective
Modern UK MPs would certainly contest the idea that little has changed at Westminster since nineteenth-century constitutional specialist Walter Bagehot described Parliament as ‘a big meeting of more or less idle people’. But the spread of democracy throughout the economy as a whole means that more and more ‘meetings of more or less idle people’ are taking place in organizations across the world. A common response to a major issue – and many a minor one – is to ‘call a meeting’ about it. But when you consider all the time and money spent organizing, attending and following up on these meetings, it is a wonder more attention has not been paid to developing more effective meeting management.
We all know that meetings can be a minefield of office politics, power struggles and psychological warfare. More than three-quarters of respondents in a survey for Office Angels, a secretarial and office-support recruitment consultancy, reported that they found meetings stressful. More than a quarter admitted to losing sleep the night before a major meeting. A massive 82% had experienced ‘friction’ in meetings, with almost one in five (19%) contributing to a ‘heated exchange’.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that there exists a widespread view that meetings can generate more heat than light, waste time and money and fail to achieve their objectives. It is all far removed from the idea that business meetings are held to help colleagues to share information and agree collective next steps.
Lee (Journal for Quality & Participation, Spring 2008) puts forward suggestions for making meetings more effective, and especially preparing the ground properly. The author highlights the importance of assigning meeting roles, having a written agenda, keeping records and assigning actions. There is nothing particularly new here, but most of us know, from bitter experience, the consequences of failing to follow these basic procedures.
Perhaps benchmarking offers a solution to making meetings more efficient. But what, exactly, does ‘benchmarking’ entail? Alstete (Benchmarking, Vol 15 No 2 2008) points out that, while benchmarking actually means carrying out measurements and then adopting best practices for improvement, others think it simply means performance measurement. A third group, not mentioned by Alstete, seems to believe that benchmarking is slavishly copying what someone else has done!
Writing in the same journal, Anand and Kodali highlight the range of benchmarking process models available, which vary according to the number of steps involved, the way in which they are applied and so on. This can cause significant confusion. In particular, users often need to know whether they should use only the unique benchmarking model that has been developed for their particular sector or situation, or whether they can use any model for any type of benchmarking.
Against this background, Anand and Kodali put forward a universal benchmarking model. It contains 71 steps, of which 13 have been considered by many researchers and the remainder are unique. The idea that a single form of benchmarking can be applied in all circumstances is interesting and could be very useful. But it does transport us to a world where, to find out the best model for benchmarking, we carry out a process of…benchmarking!