WHAT – WHEN – WHICH – WHY – WHERE – HOW

29/04/2011
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Let others speak

Of course, there is more to a conversation (managed or otherwise) than the flow of information. You may also have to win that information by winning the attention and confidence of the other person. There are many forms of flattery – the most effective is to give people your interest. To get Gretchen to give you all her knowledge, you must give her all your attention; talk to her about her view on the subject. Ask questions: what do you think about that idea, have you ever met this problem before, how would you tackle this situation?

Silence is effective – and much under-used. People are nervous of silence and try to fill it. You can use this if you are seeking information. You ask the question, you lean back, the person answers, you nod and smile, you keep quiet, and the person continues with more detail simply to fill your silence.

To finish

At the end of a conversation, you have to give people a clear understanding of the outcome. For instance, if there has been a decision, restate it clearly (just to be sure) in terms of what should happen and by when; if you have been asking questions, summarize the significant (for you) aspects of what you have learnt.

MEETING MANAGEMENT – PREPARATION

In any organization, “meetings” are a vital part of the organization of work and the flow of information. They act as a mechanism for gathering together resources from many sources and pooling then towards a common objective. They are disliked and mocked because they are usually futile, boring, time-wasting, dull, and inconvenient with nothing for most people to do except doodle while some opinionated has-been extols the virtues of his/her last great (misunderstood) idea. Your challenge is to break this mould and to make your meetings effective. As with every other managed activity, meetings should be planned beforehand, monitored during for effectiveness, and reviewed afterwards for improving their management.

A meeting is the ultimate form of managed conversation; as a manager, you can organize the information and structure of the meeting to support the effective communication of the participants. Some of the ideas below may seem a little too precise for an easy going, relaxed, semi-informal team atmosphere – but if you manage to gain a reputation for holding decisive, effective meetings, then people will value this efficiency and to prepare professionally so that their contribution will be heard.

Should you cancel?

As with all conversations, you must first ask: is it worth your time? If the meeting involves the interchange of views and the communication of the current status of related projects, then you should be generous with your time. But you should always consider canceling a meeting which has little tangible value.

Who should attend?

You must be strict. A meeting loses its effectiveness if too many people are involved: so if someone has no useful function, explain this and suggest that they do not come. Notice, they may disagree with your assessment, in which case they should attend (since they may know something you do not); however, most people are only too happy to be released from yet another meeting.

How long?

It may seem difficult to predict the length of a discussion – but you must. Discussions tend to fill the available time which means that if the meeting is open-ended, it will drift on forever. You should stipulate a time for the end of the meeting so that everyone knows, and everyone can plan the rest of their day with confidence.

It is wise to make this expectation known to everyone involved well in advance and to remind them at the beginning of the meeting. There is often a tendency to view meetings as a little relaxation since no one person has to be active throughout. You can redress this view by stressing the time-scale and thus forcing the pace of the discussion: “this is what we have to achieve, this is how long we have to get it done”.

If some unexpected point arises during the meeting then realize that since it is unexpected: 1) you might not have the right people present, 2) those there may not have the necessary information, and 3) a little thought might save a lot of discussion. If the new discussion looks likely to be more than a few moments, stop it and deal with the agreed agenda. The new topic should then be dealt with at another “planned” meeting.

Agenda

The purpose of an agenda is to inform participants of the subject of the meeting in advance, and to structure the discussion at the meeting itself. To inform people beforehand, and to solicit ideas, you should circulate a draft agenda and ask for notice of any other business. Still before the meeting, you should then send the revised agenda with enough time for people to prepare their contributions. If you know in advance that a particular participant either needs information or will be providing information, then make this explicitly clear so that there is no confusion.

The agenda states the purpose of each section of the meeting. There will be an outcome from each section. If that outcome is so complex that it can not be summarized in a few points, then it was probably too complex to be assimilated by the participants. The understanding of the meeting should be sufficiently precise that it can be summarized in short form – so display that summary for all other interested parties to see. This form of display will emphasize to all that meetings are about achieving defined goals – this will help you to continue running efficient meetings in the future.

MEETING MANAGEMENT – CONDUCTING

Whether you actually sit as the Chair or simply lead from the side-lines, as the manager you must provide the necessary support to coordinate the contributions of the participants. The degree of control which you exercise over the meeting will vary throughout; if you get the structure right at the beginning, a meeting can effectively run itself especially if the participants know each other well. In a team, your role may be partially undertaken by others; but if not, you must manage.

Maintaining Communication

Your most important tools are:

  • Clarification – always clarify: the purpose of the meeting, the time allowed, the rules to be observed (if agreed) by everyone.
  • Summary – at each stage of the proceedings, you should summarize the current position and progress: this is what we have achieved/agreed, this is where we have reached.
  • Focus on stated goals – at each divergence or pause, re-focus the proceedings on the original goals.

Code of conduct

In any meeting, it is possible to begin the proceedings by establishing a code of conduct, often by merely stating it and asking for any objections (which will only be accepted if a demonstrably better system is proposed). Thus if the group contains opinionated wind-bags, you might all agree at the onset that all contributions should be limited to two minutes (which focuses the mind admirably). You can then impose this with the full backing of the whole group.

Matching method to purpose

The (stated) purpose of a meeting may suggest to you a specific way of conducting the event, and each section might be conducted differently. For instance, if the purpose is:

  • to convey information, the meeting might begin with a formal presentation followed by questions
  • to seek information, the meeting would start with a short (clear) statement of the topic/problem and then an open discussion supported by notes on a display, or a formal brainstorming session
  • to make a decision, the meeting might review the background and options, establish the criteria to be applied, agree who should make the decision and how, and then do it
  • to ratify/explain decisions, etc etc

As always, once you have paused to ask yourself the questions: what is the purpose of the meeting and how can it be most effectively achieved; your common sense will then suggest a working method to expedite the proceedings. You just have to deliberately pause. Manage the process of the meeting and the meeting will work.

Support

The success of a meeting will often depend upon the confidence with which the individuals will participate. Thus all ideas should be welcome. No one should be laughed at or dismissed (“laughed with” is good, “laughed at” is destructive). This means that even bad ideas should be treated seriously – and at least merit a specific reason for not being pursued further. Not only is this supportive to the speaker, it could also be that a good idea has been misunderstood and would be lost if merely rejected. But basically people should be able to make naive contributions without being made to feel stupid, otherwise you may never hear the best ideas of all.

Avoid direct criticism of any person. For instance, if someone has not come prepared then that fault is obvious to all. If you leave the criticism as being simply that implicit in the peer pressure, then it is diffuse and general; if you explicitly rebuke that person, then it is personal and from you (which may raise unnecessary conflict). You should merely seek an undertaking for the missing preparation to be done: we need to know this before we can proceed, could you circulate it to us by tomorrow lunch?

Responding to problems

The rest of this section is devoted to ideas of how you might deal with the various problems associated with the volatile world of meetings. Some are best undertaken by the designated Chair; but if he/she is ineffective, or if no one has been appointed, you should feel free to help any meeting to progress. After all, why should you allow your time to be wasted.

If a participant strays from the agenda item, call him/her back: “we should deal with that separately, but what do you feel about the issue X?”

If there is confusion, you might ask: “do I understand correctly that …?”

If the speaker begins to ramble, wait until an inhalation of breath and jump in: “yes I understand that such and such, does any one disagree?”

If a point is too woolly or too vague ask for greater clarity: “what exactly do you have in mind?”

If someone interrupts (someone other than a rambler), you should suggest that: “we hear your contribution after Gretchen has finished.”

If people chat, you might either simply state your difficulty in hearing/concentrating on the real speaker. or ask them a direct question: “what do you think about that point.”

If someone gestures disagreement with the speaker (e.g. by a grimace), then make sure they are brought into the discussion next: “what do you think Gretchen?”

If you do not understand, say so: “I do not understand that, would you explain it a little more; or do you mean X or Y?”

If there is an error, look for a good point first: “I see how that would work if X Y Z, but what would happen if A B C?”

If you disagree, be very specific: “I disagree because …”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

The tower of Babel collapsed because people could no longer communicate; their speech became so different that no one could understand another. You need to communicate to coordinate your own work and that of others; without explicit effort your conversation will lack communication and so your work too will collapse though misunderstanding and error. The key is to treat a conversation as you would any other managed activity: by establishing an aim, planning what to do, and checking afterwards that you have achieved that aim. Only in this way can you work effectively with others in building through common effort.

Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (gerard@ee.ed.ac.uk) or by any other method found here

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