Time management

Occasionally, someone will ask me to evaluate a meeting or an event and give suggestions for improvement. Never short of an opinion, I relish opportunities like this to share my thoughts. I take copious notes during the event, observing the actions and reactions of the audience, as well as the presenter. I listen to the feedback chatter that happens during breaks and I take in body language. I try to figure out what connections are being made or missed. I love this kind of challenge.

It didn’t take many times of doing this for me to pick out some common threads, the most vibrant of which is TIME. In today’s meeting-happy world, nothing has more power to win or lose an audience than how you treat its time. Respect it, and your credibility skyrockets. Waste it, and eyes roll and grumbling commences as soon as you look away.

I’ve seen meetings on both ends of this continuum, but unfortunately more of them tend toward the wasting end. Meetings that are scheduled for their own sake, to check a box, to strut in front of peers, to CYA, or worse yet, to simply read (not interpret) reports that are already accessible to everyone do nothing but suck productivity from the participants–and believe me, they know it.

On the other hand, the best meetings are the ones that follow an agenda and stay on schedule. A couple of months ago, I attended a meeting that was scheduled to last a couple of hours. It presented an interesting challenge to the organizer in that the attendance was comprised of employees all over the world, with a significant portion of them signing in via phone and WebEx. Meetings like that generally make me wary, but this one was the exception. What was different? The meeting organizer presented an agenda, including time limits, and he stuck to it. He frequently let us know where we stood in the agenda, and he prodded stragglers along. He didn’t cut anyone off, but he didn’t have to. He kept his presenters on track along the way. I left that meeting feeling as if the organizer had made a promise and kept it–and I told him so.

Certainly respect for time isn’t the only component in the formula for crafting a good meeting. Content, the right participants and the right number of them, and forward motion are also critical factors. Even so, you can get the right people in a room to make important decisions, but if it takes three times as long as it should–or as promised–you won’t feel very successful. Time management can make or break any meeting.

If you have the time, I highly recommend this lecture from Randy Pausch, given at the University of Virginia. (It’s not The Last Lecture.) It lasts a little more than an hour, so you’ll want to make sure you allot enough time. It’s good stuff.

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