On this day 80 years ago, Congress created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a central part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA was established under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, as a means of creating government jobs for some of the nations many unemployed. Under the direction of Harry L. Hopkins, the WPA employed approximately 8 million people who worked on 1.4 million public projects before it was disbanded in 1943. Its programs were extremely popular and contributed significantly to Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936.
I have always been amazed at the variety of works that the WPA had a hand in creating, from vast public building projects like the construction of highways, bridges, and dams to the careers of several important American artists, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Many of the most interesting art deco buildings still in use were built during the 1930s through the auspices of the WPA.
While the WPA constructed and led to many good works during its existence, one of the banes of corporate existence is the number of meetings that one must attend. Even worse than the raw number of meetings is the lack of any good that comes out of most meetings. Most meeting organizers have no clue how to run a successful or even useful meeting. I thought about this when I read a recent article in the Houston Business Journal (HBJ), entitled “10 ways to make your next meeting more productive” by Dana Manciagli.
Manciagli began her piece by noting that researchers from the London School of Economics and Harvard University found that business leaders “spend 60% of their time in meetings, and only 15% working alone.” While this statistic alone is troubling enough, when you overlay that with the number of meetings where nothing is accomplished, it is clear to me you have a complete waste of time and resources. I do recognize that some companies have taken accomplishing nothing in meetings as a matter of corporate policy. General Motors (GM) took this to an art form in the well-documented GM Nod, which signified that there was agreement on an issue but that no one would actually do anything about it.
But for those who might want to actually accomplish something in a meeting, Manciagli pointed to Andrea Driessen whom she described as “chief boredom buster” at Seattle-based No More Bored Meetings . How is that for a moniker and company name? Manciagli related Driessen’s top ten tips for developing, running and ultimately having a successful meeting.
- Be a Know-it-all
Manciagli writes that because it is “natural to disengage when meeting content isn’t relevant. The most effective meeting hosts review all potential agenda segments to determine whether they apply to all attendees. If participants already know a particular content slice, then simply don’t cover that segment for the broader audience. Or if you have vastly different levels of awareness in the room, divide people accordingly to ensure maximum relevance for all.” Of course this means you will need to put some thought into your pre-meeting planning.
- No Problem? No Meeting!
We have all been subjected to it, the daily, weekly, monthly meeting check-in to see how the project is progressing. But Manciagli believes that “many of these less-than-productive meetings could be canceled or shortened if we identified the problem the meeting is intended to solve. And if we can’t find an identifiable problem, then don’t have the meeting.” Manciagli concludes, “Sometimes, it’s that simple.”
- Get Real
This is another pre-meeting planning point. Do you try to squeeze 13 action items for discussion and resolution into a 30-minute meeting? Conversely you do not need to book a 60-minute window to handle a couple of points. If you can handle a matter via email or need to go offline, do so.
- Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize!
Like its related cousin, Document, Document and Document, this phase should be more than simply a catchword. It should be an action item in your meeting planning process. Tackle your important issues first to “save time and solve your most pressing problem.”
- Play “Pass the Pad” To Avoid Late Arrivals
The biggest offender of this rule is, unfortunately, us lawyers. Why, because we are always (in our eyes) the most important. Yet not being able to start because someone is not present or having to repeat points is one of the worst problems there is around efficient meetings. The article notes, “Meeting productivity suffers when people arrive late, and the punctual are penalized.” Her solution is to require the latecomer to take notes in the meeting, writing “People learn quickly that they can either be on time, or become the dreaded note-taker if they are late. As host, you’ll see positive behavior change with little effort on your part.”
- Be a Meeting Bouncer
Manciagli tactfully writes about that “common meeting malady: the tangent talker.” I would perhaps less tactfully say there are way too many people who like to hear the sound of their own voices way too much. Manciagli suggests a little humor by “naming a tangent officer who monitors and records tangents for later. Use that parking lot! And you can lighten it up by using a toy police badge.” Nothing like a little corporate shame to keep things moving.
- Make it Multi-Sensory
It is not simply millennials who respond to social media. Most people do better when they are visually engaged. Manciagli suggests using more than simply oral presentations, use other tools, including the following: “Graphic illustration, in which someone draws out ideas in real time; Customer testimonials that emotionally inspire; Quizzes and games; Product demos; Surprise guests; Props that foster kinesthetic learning.”
Everyone understands the Five P rule, aka prior planning prevents poor performance. As a meeting host, this means you must absolutely be prepared prior to the meeting. If there are technical issues, you should pass out that information prior to the meeting. Manciagli pointed out that “the more skin we all have in the game, the more likely we are to own and be accountable to group outcomes.”
- Hire an “Accountant”
Accountability. How many meetings have you attended where there was no accountability? Manciagli believes “Most meetings lack built-in accountability structures.” She gives the tangible hint to “ask everyone to record at least one goal related to the meeting that they’ll commit to completing in the next week or month, and have them check in with one another. Teams gain measurable accountability, and you get recognized for generating stronger results tied to your meetings.”
- Remember: Humor is No Joke
Humor has a big use in meetings, “The power of humor — if used effectively within the meeting mix — is no laughing matter. Indeed, there is a strong business case to be made for laughing while learning.” It can also lower the stress level in meetings, once again if used properly.
I am sure that you have your own horror stories of aimless, wandering meetings that go nowhere painfully slow. As a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner, one of your most valuable items in a corporation is time. You can set an example about running an efficient and productive meeting and then lead your company down the path laid out in the article. Who knows, the results of what you start in your company may last as long as WPA work.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015