Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Musings in Meetings: What do do when you're not running the meeting (and you're bored...)

It happens to everyone. You get invited to a meeting of at least one hour length (sometimes more). You're there in case something drops about which you or your team need to be informed. Pretty soon you're doodling and all you can hear from the other participants is the sound that Charlie Brown's parents make when they talk.

Then one of two things happens: 1) you leave the meeting wondering what you missed or 2) you get called on and have to recollect what was said and formulate an answer as if you've been paying attention the entire time (even if there really wasn't much to be paying attention to).

Both can be bad in immediate and non-immediate ways.

So, this week's blog is about making other people's meetings actually useful, to both you and (maybe) the other participants) without taking over and making an ass out of yourself (hopefully--I can only do so much with the printed word).

1) Before the meeting, contact the person organizing the meeting and ask the following questions: a) What, specifically, do you need me (or a member of my team) for in this meeting? b) Is there an agenda for the meeting, and if not, could we have one, and, if so, can you send it? c) Is there anything I can do to help prep for the meeting--for example, provide data to back up assertions you'll be making or do some other kind of homework, in advance, that I might be called on for during the meeting?

Some people do not respond well to being asked any questions. Some actually actively hate agendas, and some are actually planning on springing something on you when you enter the meeting for whatever reason. Be diplomatic. When you get their replies, if there isn't sufficient substance for the meeting, go to them in person and chat about it and what you two can do together to get that substance. If you don't really need to be in the meeting, reply and let them know that and just ask for an update after the meeting is over. If they are hesitant to tell you your part in the meeting then it could be that a) yep, they're gonna spring something on you, b) they're not really sure and feel safe with you coming or c) its possibly a surprise birthday party or something. Read the response carefully and reserve judgment.

2) Prep for the meeting. You want to arrive at the meeting with something work related done. If you know what the meeting is about and/or have an agenda, bring materials with you (printed out or on your computer) for reference on the topic. Don't take forever on a vague meeting, but have some materials present with you so that if you are called on, you have something to reference. If it's a surprise sort of political manuever, you can shuffle your papers and state you thought you were talking about X subject and will get back to them about Y (rather than seeming flatfooted on the Y issue). And, if it's a party, enjoy the cake and use the papers to prevent mess on the table.

3) Bring something work related to do to the meeting. I like to grab all the notes I've made for myself and clean the up/put them in a list by writing in a notebook during the meeting (typing on the keyboard is still considered somewhat rude, so try to avoid bringing any work that requires that). Having something work related to do makes it hard to completely block out what else is going on, so you're prepared in case you are asked a question or hear a point to which you might need to respond. Also, it looks a ton more professional than drawing daisies on the margins (which is typically what happens to me when I get bored).

4) Don't be afraid to drag the meeting, kicking and screaming, back to the point. Your time is just as valuable as anyone else at the table. If they're off discussing Johnson's vacation or planning the product release of a product not being discussed in this meeting, politely asking if that can be handled "offline" is ok. Don't do this too often (no one likes bossiness from someone who hasn't organized the meeting), but you are allowed to get back to the point at hand, and encouraged to do so. Note: if the group, by majority, deems the topic that they're off on a tangent regarding is more valuable for the meeting time than the original topic, by all means, let them go. Just don't be afraid to excuse yourself if you aren't related to that material and thank them all for their time.

5) People watch. You can learn a lot about things by watching the expressions on the faces of your co-workers. People, especially bored people, let their guards down and you'll see every eye roll. If the person who is talking even seems bored, you can interrupt with useful, pertinent questions and direct the conversation to something that is more meaningful and considerably less boring for all involved. If the big boss is listening intently, you know to pay attention, as well, whereas if he's playing on his phone you can grasp this particular project may not be as important as whatever else is going on. You learn a lot from just watching people, and if you're going to be trapped in a room with them, learn as much as you can.

6) Encourage the meeting owner to moderate. This one is shaky ground, btw. Telling someone else how to run their own meeting can be fighting words in any organization. However, if two people have been dominating the meeting with opposing viewpoints, stalling out further progress, support of the meeting owner and a request for their valuable opinion can help that person get you guys back on track. Think about what you're going to say very carefully, and if you'd hate someone on the spot for saying it while you're running a meeting, don't say it.

7) When all else fails, ask for a summary. Seriously. You can do everything (professional) you can and its not going to get anymore exciting or relevant (you can always be unprofessional and hire clowns or something, but I don't really recommend that). Before the meeting breaks up, ask the owner of the meeting to send a summary with action items to everyone, please, for your notes. At least that way you won't feel like you missed anything really important while zoning out.

Meetings are a fact of corporate life; they don't have to so boring that you wish for sweet death.

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