Robert Gates Runs Effective Meetings, Why Can’t I?!

Reading today’s Eye Opener, I was struck by a quotation regarding how SecDef Robert Gates handles meetings:

“Even Gates’s detractors concede that he is a ruthlessly effective manager of the Pentagon bureaucracy. He demands that all briefing slides from his staff and military commanders reach his office the day before the meeting in which they will be discussed. With the slides in hand, he plots how he wants to drive the discussion. If slides arrive after the deadline, the meeting will be canceled or postponed, Pentagon officials said.”

I think that kind of structure and preparation is inspiring. I’ve only been in the government for about three years and I already feel a little burned out with how meetings are often run. Is there an agenda? Does the meeting start and end on time? Does the discussion stay on topic? All too often, the answer to each of these questions is “no.” For some meetings, that’s okay. But for others, it can get a bit frustrating. And I must admit, sometimes I’m the chief offender.

I’m not Robert Gates (surprise!), so even if I learn the perfect way to run a meeting, I won’t be able to impose a bunch of rules on everybody around me. But what can I do to make the meetings I run and attend work better?

I have a lot to learn.

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Charles Schaffer

Perhaps the Government should adopt a Pecha Kucha mandate for all meetings. Pecha Kucha, usually pronounced in three syllables like “pe-chak-cha” is a presentation format in which content can be easily, efficiently and informally shown, usually at a public event designed for that purpose. Under the format, a presenter shows 20 images for 20 seconds apiece, for a total time of 6 minutes, 40 seconds. See

Adam Harvey

Hi Zach,

I think most people don’t really know how to run an effective meeting, which is why many of them sort of devolve into meandering chat sessions. I suggest checking out:

  • Robert’s Rules of Order – The ultimate guide to rigidly disciplined meetings. You can probably ignore most of the parliamentary procedural stuff, but the sections on Committees and Boards [that links to the 100 year old public domain version, might be worth investing in a new one] can be very useful if you’re expecting people to submit reports, or have to create one or follow an agenda of your own.
  • Local Leadership Training – I’ve taken several leadership workshops of various kinds offered in my local communities, there might be something offered in your area that fits the bill.

These are the tactics I use when I’m in a meeting to keep things focused.

  1. I go into the meeting with a good idea of what issues MUST be addressed in the time alloted, and keep my eye on the clock so as to make sure we have sufficient time to cover them. If I don’t have a good idea what the meeting is about, I make sure everyone knows that I’m in the dark and then I usually get an explanation.
  2. I watch for Mission/Scope Creep, and once it starts showing up, I usually ask a question or crack a joke that ties in to whatever is being talked about, but also brings us back to the topic at hand. It is a bit more diplomatic than just saying “Hey we should be talking about X”
  3. At the end of the meeting I restate my understandings of the content covered and the actions to be taken, including who they’ve been assigned to. I’ve found that this helps avoid meetings about meetings by making sure everyone is leaving on the same page.
Jeffrey Levy

Yep, what Adam said.

I also find it’s helpful to send a quick email when I get back to my office that starts “Just so we have everyone’s eyes on the next steps list …”

Going into a meeting, be clear on your purpose. Are you:
– learning about something, so wandering around is fine as long as it’s on topic
– brainstorming, in which case wandering around isn’t just fine, it’s good
– making a decision, when wandering around is a problem
– quickly updating (e.g., a daily staff meeting)

I’m hardly perfect on running a meeting, but if it starts going astray, I usually try some strategy like those to get it back on track.

Also, try to be aware of a conversation circling back on itself. If you’re the decision maker and your advisors have each repeated their points 3 times, they might be happy to go for a fourth round, but it’s just wasting everyone’s time.

Another thing is time management. Know when you really should start on time and when it doesn’t matter if you start a few minutes late. Different meetings and different cultures lead to different decisions on that point. But everyone appreciates leaving on time.

Adam Arthur

I am of the mindset that meetings should only happen when absolutely necessary. With the introduction of 2.0 tools and platforms, workflows can easily be navigated behind the firewall. Wikis, shared schedules, video chat, Webex, Go2Meeting, and yes, even email- a lot can get accomplished before a meeting should be considered.

We live in the government, though, and I attend more meetings than one man should. With that said, someone has to be in charge. Just recently, I learned a very valuable lesson…a good organizer and facilitator is worth their weight in gold. A manager of an organization that we use for contract work showed me how its done. I thought I was good, but this lady blew me away!

If you are not the meeting guru, let the best organizer take the lead. If you feel like your good but someone else is better…give in. If in fact you are the point and there is no one else, do your very best with all of the resources you can gather. There are some great tips given by others in this discussion on being organized, prepared, and on message. The best advice I can give is this: Know a little about a whole lot of things…be able to talk with a good grasp on all of the subject matter. If you don’t know something, admit that. True wisdom is being able to admit that you are not the smartest person in the world (or in the room). A team should be comprised of those who collectively work as a unit. There is strength in numbers. If everyone can shed their egos, much more will get done. 🙂

Cian Dawson

Having worked in gov’t, NGOs, academia, and private industry, I have to say that the problem of poorly run meetings isn’t specifically a public-sector issue. There are skills and techniques to create an effective meeting — like the ones folks mentioned above — and it’s the responsibility of the facilitator/leader and the participants to help make it happen.

I find this issue coming up more these days with remote meetings (teleconferences) and distributed teams. I have repeatedly heard people suggest that “we just all need to get into a room together and figure this out” when (in my opinion) the problems are really a function of ineffective meetings, not the location of the participants! Weakness in face-to-face meetings seem to be magnified in remote meetings. But, it just takes many of those same techniques above to make a vast improvement.

You can learn new skills to lead a better meeting, and you can also help others in the meeting by making objectives and your expectations of them clear. What’s the point of the meeting, what’s their role in the meeting, and what is expected of them before/during/after.

When people push back about changing “the way things are done,” I sometimes ask point blank if they see the point and if there’s been an improvement. Efficient & effective meetings benefit everyone involved, but sometimes people just want to complain a little about having to change “the ways things are done.” In the end, if it improves everyone’s experience and work flow, they’ll come around.

Jaqi Ross

“…even if I learn the perfect way to run a meeting, I won’t be able to impose a bunch of rules on everybody around me.”

The optimist in me (and she’s a wee lass, that optimistic) wants to say that you don’t have to impose rules, you just have to make it easy for folks to do the right thing. For instance, if you include timeframes on your agenda to help folks reign in their comments to accommodate the timeslot, you’ll help eliminate the redundancy that Jeffrey alludes to. (Oh so common when folks are “feeling things out.”) So, here are some ideas that you can use to help make it easier for folks to do the right thing:

– Always distribute an agenda (with timeframes, if necessary!) to the attendees at least one day in advance of the meeting. Be polite and check with the folks you’ve indicated as speakers to make sure they’re comfortable with their role and have a specific plan of action in mind (see Jeffrey’s comment for a list of different purposes you can consider to keep things on track).

– If you’re holding recurring meetings, establish a common workspace (physical or virtual) that folks can return to check for meeting minutes, agendas, documentation, etc. – and hold folks accountable for sharing information there with friendly reminders if the e-mail traffic (which is undocumented in the shared space) gets heavy.

– As folks join the meeting early (esp. if you’re doing conference calls), let them know you’ll be doing a roll call at precisely XX:XX AM/PM (the meeting start time). You can avoid the commotion that accompanies so many meeting kick-offs as folks try to figure out how to let you know they’re there.

– Follow up is so important, and so often overlooked. Take minutes!! Share them. Include calls to action in the minutes. Follow up with folks to see if they need help, and get them in touch with the folks or resources they need to be successful.

– Scheduling a long meeting? We all know that folks can get distracted when you take a break, and often don’t return on time. Trick folks into returning on time by *not* listing the end time of the break on your agenda, but the *start* time of the next presentation. Folks’ll be more inspired to get back to their seats for the next speaker. (And be sure to have every speaker begin on time to encourage the best behavior!)

Of course, when the pessimist in me sees the optimist piping up, she has to have her say, too. If you’re not good at enforcing meeting rules (things like starting and stopping on time, sticking to timeframes by asking folks to limit their conversation, helping folks come to a decision with the time comes, etc.), then do the next best thing and recruit and delegate.

Chances are there’s *someone* who attends your meetings who has this skill set. Watch for the person who’s checking her watch as the discussion drones on and on. Or the guy who’s always on time and scribbles notes during the whole meeting. Maybe the gal who suggested an agenda item for that agenda you never got around to making.

Talk to your new advocate before the meeting about your goal of running things more effectively and see if you can’t get him or her on board. Then, introduce your new meeting superhero at the next meeting and explain the role so that everyone understands the power you’ve delegated. In other words, if this person says it’s time to move on and make a decision, it’s Time. To. Move. On.

Best of luck with your meetings!

Andrew Krzmarzick

5 ideas:

1. Remove the chairs from the room – standing more than 15 minutes will make people get to the point.
2. Assign time to each agenda item (5 minutes)
3. Designate a timekeeper to make sure you stick to the allotted time
4. Ask: “Can we move the longer discussion to a wiki?”
5. Reward efficiency – “if we get through this agenda in less time than allotted, take the extra time at lunch….”

Barry Williams

I certainly endorse effective tools and techniques to make meetings productive. However, I believe the root of time-wasting meetings is the lack of respect for other peoples’ time.

Tracy Kerchkof

A couple of thoughts that jumped out at me:

“Weakness in face-to-face meetings seem to be magnified in remote meetings.”

“I believe the root of time-wasting meetings is the lack of respect for other peoples’ time.”

I think both of these are true. I am less than a year in my current job, which is also the most meeting heavy job I’ve had, but I’ve been working for gov’t & academia for a long time since my freshman year of college in several capacities. I really do try to run effective meetings, I give out agenda’s, I give out homework to engage people outside of the meetings…but ultimately, there is only so much a good organizer can do. You need to have the respect of the attendees, and they need to want the same thing. One of the committees that I’m on I feel refuses to have effective meeitngs, any time you try to push them on agenda items, or making next steps and action items, I feel a lot of push back, and then we usually end up with useless meetings.

If I had more seniority, I might be able to get away with a Robert Gates style of running meetings. I would love to do that. But, I’m young and trying to establish myself, and I feel like I can only push so hard before I alienate myself. Anyone have good tips for dealing with that problem?