• October 24, 2014

How to Run a Meeting

Committees and Meetings Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

We all have experienced interminable meetings: the hourlong meeting to accomplish 10 minutes' worth of work, or the meeting that seems to have no purpose. Whether on the department level or the larger institutional level, inefficiently run meetings consume inordinate amounts of our time and energy.

That is worrisome, given how much of our academic lives we spend in committee work. The key difference between an efficiently run meeting and one that wastes time is whether we conceive of the committee as a structure to accomplish something concrete or as an occasion to fill time.

I know a department chairman, for example, who was notorious for running meetings simply to fill time. He never provided a printed agenda, either prior to the meeting or even when we arrived at the meeting itself. We typically would all assemble at the appointed hour, but rather than begin, he would spend 10 or more minutes chatting with everyone about mundane subjects.

Upon finally calling the meeting to order, he would amble through the subject matter with no apparent objective. The meeting would eventually devolve into a free-form discussion, devoid of structure or direction. By the time we actually got to the real work that needed to be done, most of an hour had elapsed, and we would then rush hastily through the actual work that we should have spent the entire hour focusing on. Because our decisions were made in haste, their quality was always questionable.

That same pattern would be repeated with every meeting that this chair moderated. It would be easy to blame the inefficiency purely on an incompetent chair, or one who was just bad at conducting a meeting. But what puzzled me is that several (but not all) of our colleagues tolerated—or even embraced—this practice. They seemed to enjoy the collegiality and the relaxed social nature of the meetings. It was as if they had no other work to do, or no other opportunities to socialize with their colleagues—neither of which was true.

A senior professor at a Midwestern university complained to me about how the graduate-program director in her department conducts his meetings. He apparently spends considerable time flirting with female committee members who happen to be junior faculty members or graduate students. "The constant pseudo-sexual banter is offensive enough," she said to me, "but so is the fact that he wastes my time with his nonsense, time I could be devoting to my research." She eventually asked to be removed from the committee.

Some committee chairs will insist on meeting even when there is no business to conduct. That often happens when a committee has a standing meeting time. I have even known chairs who began meetings by announcing, "We really don't have anything to do today, but let's touch base with one another." Obviously, such a practice shows a real lack of respect for people's time.

Other people convene a meeting and then fail to manage it. Rather than begin with clear goals, those committee chairs permit a kind of collective stream of consciousness to take over.

Still other chairs fail to control the behavior of committee members. In one department with which I am familiar, one professor would consistently seize control of departmental meetings and attempt to assert his own agenda. The meeting would rapidly spin out of control, but the department chair would do little to steer the group back to the task at hand. In a few instances, the sessions degenerated into shouting matches.

And, of course, sometimes committee chairs will run meetings poorly on purpose. For example, occasionally a chair will deliberately take a leisurely or even tedious pace through a meeting, hoping to wear down the committee members so that when they finally do arrive at an issue of substance, they will hastily approve the proposal just to end the meeting. That is a time-honored strategy for steering a controversial measure through the approval process, but it, too, does a disservice to busy colleagues, not to mention being dishonest.

Clearly, meetings in a professional setting are not opportunities to socialize or to fill time aimlessly; they are instruments for conducting business. Academics are busy people, and it is not only a disservice but even a form of disrespect to squander our time. That's why conducting committee work in as efficient a way as possible is a mark of collegiality and respect. Here are some best practices for running meetings efficiently.

  • Cancel a meeting if you have a light agenda. Better to have a fuller agenda at the next regularly scheduled session than to ask colleagues to meet with little to do. Remember: It takes time to prepare for and arrive at a meeting, and that, too, is valuable time.
  • Hand out an agenda in advance of the meeting. A published agenda helps everyone stay on track.
  • Always limit the length of a meeting and monitor the time so that it doesn't go on too long. For example, don't schedule an hour meeting if the tasks at hand can reasonably be accomplished in a half-hour.
  • When appropriate, pass out supporting documents in advance so that people can arrive prepared. The better prepared that committee members are, the more likely they are to work efficiently.
  • Begin every meeting on time, not 10 minutes late. That practice is a sign of respect for committee members' time, and it cuts down on the likelihood of rushing through part of the agenda later. (And once members know that you will always begin punctually, they will be more likely to show up on time.)
  • Immediately after calling a meeting to order, make clear the purpose and objectives of the session: "We need to make three key decisions this morning." The best committee chair is goal oriented and guides the group from task to task.
  • Establish guidelines for members' participation and behavior. For example: "Members will be expected to limit their contributions to a discussion to no longer than two minutes at a time; no one member will be allowed to filibuster or monopolize." Or, "Members will be expected to adhere to the topic at hand and not lead the discussion off to other subjects."
  • Use e-mail to conduct minor committee work so as to save face-to-face time for more important tasks.
  • Conduct your meeting not only efficiently but fairly. Steamrolling through the decision-making process without providing adequate time for discussion and deliberation does not equate to efficiency.

Another form of inefficiency is when a department or college creates two or three committees when a single panel could easily handle the workload. Some departments have established an astounding number of committees. It is always in a department's best interest, whenever possible, to consolidate the workload into fewer committees so as not to overburden its faculty and staff members.

Many colleges, for example, have established a committee on tenure and promotion, another on budget recommendations, a third on personnel matters, such as hiring priorities, and a fourth on allocation of laboratory and classroom space. Increasingly, colleges are consolidating the work of all four into one panel, often called an "executive committee," and providing some form of compensation for committee members (usually release time from teaching) because they are taking on a high workload.

The advantage of the supercommittee system is easy to see. The workload of four committees might have been spread among 20 or 25 faculty members, some doing double duty on more than one committee. But with a single panel, six or seven faculty members can carry the load, freeing their colleagues' time for research and teaching.

Whether it is because of inefficiently run committee meetings or because a department or college has been injudicious in how it has established its committee structure, we all risk wasting too much time in committee work. Like it or not, such service constitutes a substantial part of every academic's workload. Doing it as effectively and efficiently as possible is a true act of collegiality.

Gary A. Olson is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University and co-editor with John W. Presley of The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives From America's Academic Leaders (Paradigm). He can be contacted at golson@isu.edu.

Comments

1. jeff1 - July 14, 2010 at 07:06 am

Nicely done Gary! Good advice.

2. ksledge - July 14, 2010 at 07:47 am

Great advice! This applies to all kinds of meetings, not just committees--research meetings, professor-student meetings, lab meetings.

3. cleverclogs - July 14, 2010 at 08:01 am

I think many of these suggestions are useful and, of course, no one wants to have their time wasted at a meeting that goes nowhere.

But there is also the problem of the committee members who want to get the meeting over as quickly as possible and therefore refuse to do any actual work when they come to meetings, insisting instead that more time or more study or a separate subcommittee is needed. Sure, the committee can fly through agenda items, but it's a total abdication of responsibility. In my experience, these members consider committee work to be a distraction from, rather than part of, their "real" job.

It actually reminds me a bit of certain students who see coming to class as a waste of their time. To those students and the committee members who resemble them, I say: showing up to these meetings is part of your job. Just block off the time and do it because more can be done when we see each other.

4. jdskoog - July 14, 2010 at 08:19 am

I have found it useful to provide on the agenda for each item relevant background information (nature & dimensions of the problem or question being considered, possible actions, etc.) so that time can be spent on solving the problem or answering the question. Too often excessive time is spent during a meeting on defining the problem or question rather than seeking a solution or answer.

5. honore - July 14, 2010 at 09:30 am

I had an associate dean once who "could" have benefited greatly (assuming she was trainable) from these suggestions.

Her favorite faux-administrative ploy was to say..."I'll have to speak to you in private about that", whenever any of her underling deans or administrators would bring up a topic that she deemed to be not one that she wanted to address in her fake-democratic autocratic style.

The time wasted in her "meetings" was immeasurable and finally she left to work on her tie-dye moo-moos and to drive her ill-bred, mediocre dogs to shows around the country. Sad person indeed.

6. academic2000 - July 14, 2010 at 09:48 am

Here's another guideline: Don't be afraid to end the meeting early if you have gotten through everything on the agenda. I have sat through sessions in which the chair seemed to feel obligated to keep everyone there kibbitzing until the official end time of the meeting. Most of us can think of plenty of things to do with "found" time.

7. 22073491 - July 14, 2010 at 09:58 am

I note that the "compensation" suggested for those on high level committees is release from teaching time. As the parent of and undergraduate I offending by the notion that teaching is the least important part of a faculty member's responsibilities.

8. drdonnaw - July 14, 2010 at 10:27 am

I left the two-year college administrative environment about eight years ago and am now working in the private sector. To my surprise and delight, meetings in the private sector (either mine or others) begin and end on time, and agendas or documents are distributed in advance. We don't delay starting a meeting by waiting for someone to run for a cup of coffee. Likewise, we don't halt meeting discussions that are in progress to bring any latecomers (rare) by "catching them up". What novel concepts! In my former life, I attended many meetings that were social chit chat sessions or disintegrated into personal-agenda setting shouting.

9. unusedusername - July 14, 2010 at 10:47 am

Great advise! Most of what is done in meetings can be done by email. The only time meetings should occur is when everyone needs to meet in order to make a decision. The meeting should end when the decisions are made. If the purpose of the meeting is just to make announcements, send an email.

10. djgray1 - July 14, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Great suggestions! I just wish we could the people who need to read this article to actually read it.

11. jupiter125 - July 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

I recommend the book "Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable," by Patrick Lencioni. While corporate rather than academic, it has some good lessons for creating hierarchies of meetings rather than tedious catch-alls that departments and institutes might find useful.

12. amy_l - July 14, 2010 at 12:37 pm

There's something between "a structure to accomplish something concrete" and "an occasion to fill time." I've been on two university committees that were put together by higher admin to bring people together with similar interests so that we could think up some ideas for possible projects. The charges to both committees were incredibly vague, and there was no indication of whether the university had any funds available to support anything we came up with. We all had the feeling we were supposed to be doing *something*, not just filling time, but none of us was ever clear about what exactly we were supposed to be doing. Higher admin should not put together committees like this unless they've got some concrete objectives.

13. glomzx - July 14, 2010 at 01:03 pm

As the comments show, managing meetings is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma for chairs and faculty alike. Some folks resent meetings of any kind, even once a semester, and just want to be left alone to do their thing, while others see benefits of getting together for both collegiality and governance. As a past chairman of a small department, I couldn't please everyone and (too?) often let the faculty take the lead in how they wanted to carry out the process. Despite the occasional standard grumbling, once engaged, the faculty would almost always discuss/debate well past the proposed ending time. Should I have been more autocratic, as Dr. Olson implies here, or is it equally logical to let faculty/staff give their voice and debate to the issues? I dunno. Perhaps there is a well-directed balance between top-down emails taking care of business and no-holds-barred endless discussion. I once attended a faculty meeting at a different institution in which there were three noncontroversial items on the agenda--it took 1.5 hours! We do like to talk. Although Dr. Olson's recommendations are a bit stiff for me, he does offer good advice overall, yet such suggestions as "Always limit the length of a meeting and monitor the time so that it doesn't go on too long" are naturally contradicted by the last bullet ("Conduct your meeting not only efficiently but fairly. Steamrolling through the decision-making process without providing adequate time for discussion and deliberation does not equate to efficiency"). Damned-do/don't.

14. terrymurray - July 14, 2010 at 01:11 pm

Was the graphic doodled during a meeting? Or has the Chronicle already spent its graphics budget for the year?

15. markwjones - July 14, 2010 at 02:32 pm

Good advice and useful suggestions for a topic that desperately needs more attention in academia. Thank you.

However, the very best resource I've ever found for improving the conduct, effectiveness and productivity of meetings is still Patrick Lencioni's book, "Death by Meeting." It offers many profound insights about the culture of meetings and provides exceptional out-of-the box strategies for making meetings useful. Perhaps Lencioni's most important insight is that "one size (or one format) does not fit all" and that trying to accomplish multiple purposes (i.e., information-sharing, problem solving, policy creation) doesn't do justice to any of them. For instance setting aside ten minutes to "go around the table and share what's up" before having a serious problem-solving discussion guarantees that the info-sharing will take 30 minutes and the important problem-solving discussion will get short-changed. Lencioni recommends keeping such functions separate and setting time limits and agendas that appropriately fit the function.

16. wkawakami - July 14, 2010 at 03:12 pm

The points in the articles are valid and legitimizes meetings. It seems that some people enjoy having meetings and use meetings as a means of filling up the work day. This may be counter productive when a meeting is really necessary and the mentality is "here we go again - what a waste of time". WKawakami

17. brozema - July 14, 2010 at 04:08 pm

Great article! I remember a cartoon in the Chronicle from 25+ years ago, which I cut out and kept on my bulletin board until I moved my office recently. It depicted an academic with a ten-gallon hat and six shooter holstered to his leg, walking through campus with another academic saying, "I once shot a man for not having an agenda. I'm not proud, but the meetings sure moved along a lot better after that."

18. 22113683 - July 14, 2010 at 05:18 pm

I second (third) the recommendation of "Death by Meeting." Excellent book! I'm in a small department, and our meetings are some of the most frustrating I've ever been in. The chair utilizes most of the time delivering monologues about yada yada yada, and then wants several major decisions in the two minutes before we all rush off to class.

I'm also on an administration committee, and we always get an agenda and supporting documentation before the meeting. The problem? Sometimes the stuff comes (via email) just hours before the meeting, and those of us with classes to teach have no time to prepare before the meeting, leaving us to look befuddled while those with more free time discuss the ins and outs of the issues.

19. kendall123 - July 14, 2010 at 05:52 pm

Great points, and I would add that it's really important for someone to take minutes - even (or perhaps especially) in a very informal meeting. I've been to so many meetings where committee members were assigned (or volunteered for) tasks to complete afterwards, and then nobody ever remembered what they were supposed to do, or who was supposed to do what. Following up the meeting with an e-mail summary of what was discussed and decided is so important to make sure everyone stays on the same page.

20. reformhigheredu - July 14, 2010 at 06:48 pm

I work at a place that aims to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest, most useless meetings. Meetings go on for 2 hours (many times over 2 hours-we have the mother of all meetings). The only purpose of the meetings is for grandstanding and posturing. Even if there are two topics on the agenda, the chair just sits there and allows the meeting to drag on until the 2.5 hours are over. It's a meeting for the sake of meeting. To my dismay, many members appear to love that format or are just indifferent. I'm afraid I'll wind up a corpse in a chair (due to a blood clot)--but yet the meeting will still keep going.

21. probligo - July 14, 2010 at 08:58 pm

When was it ever different? I will look to Lencioni's "Death by Meeting", but the resource book for every meeting organiser just has to be C Northcote Parkinson with his Laws of the Committee.

First Law (as I recall as the memorys fade :) ) -

The time spent on any agenda item is in direct, inverse proportion to the amount of money involved. The example he gives - "A nuclear power station takes 15 minutes to approve. The committee will then spend three weeks debating the colour of the bicycle shed outside."

He proves (mathematically) that the most efficient committees have no more than 7 members. Efficiency declines geometrically as the number of members increases, reaching zero at (again if memory serves) 15 members.

All good fun, but does nothing to overcome the bad chair. To that end, the ideas proposed are sound and clear - as every good agenda should be.

Oh, I am an "ex-bureaucrat"

22. allenh - July 15, 2010 at 08:21 am

Who am I? I'm that guy who sits in the back (when possible) and brings other work to do to most stupid meetings. I occasionally look up and generally wait to vote knowing that only partially listening is enough to figure out what's going on.

I'm a bad, bad faculty member.

23. chiroptera - July 15, 2010 at 08:48 am

A July 2009 Chronicle article (URL: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/That-Meeting-Its-Gonna-Cost/7414/) provides a link to an entertaining web tool for tracking one cost of meetings.

For the tool itself, see http://tobytripp.github.com/meeting-ticker/

24. studentsuccess10 - July 15, 2010 at 09:50 am

I think kendall123 is right on the money. A short, point form meeting summary sent out by email is very important for several reasons. It will assure that those who took on responsibilities will not forget about it right away and secondly these notes will somewhat ensure that the same matters are not continually rehashed in meeting after meeting. Unfortunately, someone has to create the meeting summary and that can be a problem for anyone who doesn't want to do much but pontificate. I vote that the chair does this little task as a service to all committee members.

The value of collaboration on important plans is never to be undervalued. This may be unquantifiable and yet I have seen countless examples of colleagues meeting and working together with increased success. The value of this approach is clear when one committee member helps another deal with a difficult and important problem or event. The success of such collaboration leads to other cooperative efforts that most likely will lead to faculty, staff and student success.

25. koufax33 - July 15, 2010 at 02:06 pm

Good article. I interviewed an emeritus faculty member who stated that 1/3 of the universities committees could be eliminated and for the remaining committees, 1/3 of the people on those could be eliminated which would also eliminate 1/3 of the time these meetings take. He said it would be difficult to ever implement but I believe he is certainly right.

26. aeonelpis - July 15, 2010 at 02:32 pm

ProfHacker recently ran a piece relevant to this conversation:

http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Myers-Briggs-or-how-to-learn/22956/

The piece and the comment conversation focus on how different Myers-Briggs personality types approach organizing a decision-making process. The different types profoundly affects how people approach a meeting.

27. ovpstaff - July 15, 2010 at 03:37 pm

Nice summary of some basic but important points. A few more from experience: when items come up that are off the current agenda or if someone is monopolizing air time, put the topic in what is commonly called the parking lot -- a place for items for future discussion or hand-off to appropriate groups or parties. Add those items to a future agenda or report back on the hand-off. Also, it is often helpful to indicate when you are asking for input based on members' discipline or perspective, i.e., based on who or what they are representing, and when you want them to take that hat off and think more globally. Signalling these changes in perspective helps break people out of their disciplinary or departmental silos when it is needed.

28. 22126278 - July 16, 2010 at 09:32 am

The article and the discussion were very helpful in clarifying something important for me about meetings.

If we are faculty professionals responsible for self-governance as well as for the academic program and teaching of students, one further objective (ideal) for meetings--beyond efficient processing of action items--is that we listen to one another, whether at the level of department, division, or college. Important decisions issuing from higher levels such as executive committees, need to be presented in meetings (rather than disseminated over e-mail). This allows for consideration, discussion, integration or improvement of such actions by the community. I'm not referring to collegiality here (for which there is surely a place as well), but to meetings that allow thoughtful, careful addressing of our academic mission and vision, as these are shaped by various decisions made at the ever-increasing levels of administration. This kind of meeting also shapes how we relate to one another in a way that transcends simple efficiency.

The value here, beyond the perfectly fine goal of "doing business" as necessary, is that the (well-guided) meeting (preferably ventilated with opportunities for humor) creates and sustains our potential to hear one another as faculty, and to operate at the level of a "College." An ideal, to be sure. But then, so is Justice or Truth.

--no user name please

29. swizzermoose - July 16, 2010 at 04:54 pm

My apologies for commenting so late in the day; I was in a meeting.

30. vikrampareek - July 21, 2010 at 04:28 am

Thanks for the article. It got a great suggestion here. Your article give a brief & important clarification about the meeting.

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