Focus: People Management - Coaching session with Stephen Bubb

Q: I seem to spend an enormous amount of time in meetings. Are they all necessary?

A: I am quite sure they're not. Across the sector we are rather prone to endless meetings. I know from my experience of the public sector that meetings seem to be a harmless way of spending one's working day.

We can be extremely lazy about meetings. We have a problem, so let's have a meeting to discuss it. We need to get staff involvement, so let's have a meeting. We need to know how stakeholders are feeling, so let's organise a meeting.

So my first suggestion is that you do a meetings audit. Look back at your diary for the past month and work out how much time you spent in meetings. If it is more than half your working week, you should start to be more rigorous about them.

First, make sure you are not holding meetings for the wrong reasons.

You or your staff may be calling meetings to avoid making tough decisions.

Individuals must feel they can make decisions without getting the agreement of countless others in the organisation. This often paralyses the public sector into holding endless meetings.

Second, make sure you use meeting time efficiently. Here are a few tips:

a) Use technology. Are you making full use of on-line conversations and telephone conferencing? The recent Gershon efficiency review has pushed efficiency savings in government by encouraging the development of 'virtual teams'. BT recently introduced a policy of replacing all but the most important meetings with email and telephone conferencing. The company reckons it saved £128m a year in time and meeting costs.

My own experience of telephone conferencing is that you accomplish a huge amount of business in very little time.

There are excellent third-sector specialists in telephone conferencing, such as Community Network (www.community-network.org). Make sure you use them.

b) Keep it brief. Why must meetings be so long? People usually diary them for at least an hour, and often for a full morning or afternoon.

Why? Instead, keep meetings to 45 minutes wherever possible.

c) Ruthless chairing. A substantial part of meetings is usually taken up by irrelevant or unnecessary discussions, delving into operational details or matters that actually don't need to be discussed at all. Learn to spot these tangents and cut them out.

The only downside of limiting meeting time is cutting out the helpful social interaction that occurs when people get together. So if you are cutting down on meetings, don't forget to encourage other ways in which staff and other groups can get together.

- Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo)

Send your questions to stephen.bubb@haynet.com.

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