Facilitator4hire Founder Quoted in Wall Street Journal Article on Meetings…
Janet Danforth Shares Strategies For Improving Meetings

Theory & Practice
Corporate Meetings Go Through a Makeover

Better Productivity Is Goal As Methods Differ to Boost Effectiveness of Employees

Wall Street Journal
March 6, 2006; Page B3

The prevailing corporate attitude toward meetings can be summed up by a cartoon on technology and industrial firm 3M Co.'s Web site. In it, a man is pointing at a complicated blueprint on the wall; the caption reads: "And in the new meeting-room complex entrance will be a plaque commemorating the actual work once done on that site."

So it isn't surprising that managers increasingly seek ways to make meetings more productive. At Silicon Valley start-up Ruckus Wireless, employees remove the chairs from some meetings so participants get to the point quicker. At Southwest Airlines, the director of employee learning starts all her meetings -- even regular staff gatherings -- with minicelebrations, often including food; one recent session celebrated a staffer's purchase of a high-tech vacuum cleaner.

For gatherings requiring particularly creative thinking, toy maker Mattel Inc. built a meeting room to resemble a tree house, complete with a large artificial tree trunk sprouting through the floor.

Practitioners say these techniques make meetings more interesting, and useful. The tree-house room "was designed as a place that brings out the boy and girl in us," says John Duprey, Mattel's director of organization development, who says the design helps employees think unconventionally.

Time Is Money

Poor meetings waste time and money, but they also may harm employee health. Professors in the U.S. and Britain recently surveyed 676 employees, who said they spend an average of 5.6 hours a week in meetings. The employees got gloomier and more anxious about their jobs the more time they spent in meetings they considered ineffective, says Steven Rogelberg, a principal researcher.

That may explain why there is now an industry of professional meeting "facilitators," complete with a 1,300-member international organization and standards to become a "Certified Professional Facilitator." These gurus say one sure warning sign of a bad meeting is that attendees don't know what they're doing there.

"A lot of people come to us and say, 'I have no idea why I'm in those meetings,' " says Janet Danforth, a certified facilitator. Ms. Danforth says one of her corporate clients determined that ineffective meetings were costing the company about $1 million a year in lost productivity for 16 high-ranking employees alone.

Like most meeting consultants, Ms. Danforth advises clients to have a clear purpose and an agenda before they start. Other common suggestions: Set strict time limits, make sure discussion stays on track and know who is going to make decisions. In her meetings, Ms. Danforth also forbids gadgetry like BlackBerry email devices and notebook computers.

One company that takes meetings very seriously is semiconductor maker Intel Corp., which juggles communication among 100,000 employees in 120 countries.

Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., requires all new hires to take a four-hour class in "Effective Meetings," featuring role-playing, quizzes and a 25-page handbook covering topics from the six rules of agenda-writing to the four essential roles to be filled at every meeting.

Agendas in Advance

Some of Intel's tips: Don't mix up housekeeping meetings for routine updates with those that aim to solve a specific problem; avoid "rat holes," or off-track discussions; and always prepublish agendas.

Employees say the pointers aren't always religiously observed, but the standardized format helps.

"It is the only way we could get as much done as we do," says Patricia McDonald, a plant manager at a factory in Oregon who typically goes to 10 face-to-face meetings a week and phones in to nine others.

On a recent Wednesday, Ms. McDonald was in back-to-back meetings from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., from a small gathering of senior managers to a large teleconference with operations staffs of four factories.

For particularly crucial meetings, Intel has a special team of six full-time facilitators who guide participants through intensive sessions in a 5,000-square-foot building in Oregon. The facilitators can tap a database of techniques ranging from good icebreakers, to how to evaluate competitive threats. And they can draw on an armory of tailor-made equipment, including hand-held voting pads for quick, anonymous polling of the meeting members, rolling 6-foot-by-6-foot white boards that can double as space dividers and a 42-foot-long white board.

Other companies have had success with radically different meeting techniques: Witness the experience of Triumph International (Japan) Ltd., a unit of a Swiss women's underwear maker.

At Triumph Japan, President Koichiro Yoshikoshi convenes a daily meeting at 8:30 a.m. sharp, at which he quizzes the company's managers on everything from the design of the new line of junior bras to the benefits of routing phone calls over the Internet.

"Speed Management"

There is no agenda and no debate: Mr. Yoshikoshi decides on the topics of interest, and tries to finish each topic in two minutes or less, averaging about 40 topics in each hourlong session.

Mr. Yoshikoshi keeps the material related to each subject in its own clear plastic folder -- often popping documents into an overhead projector so his staff can see what he's referring to, a spokeswoman says.

The company's 50-odd top managers are required to attend or videoconference in from Triumph offices throughout Japan. If Mr. Yoshikoshi asks a question that no one can answer on the spot, he gives them a deadline for a reply -- usually the next day. For anything that is going to take more than a week to settle, Mr. Yoshikoshi demands a timetable -- within the week -- detailing exactly when things will get done.

Triumph staffers say Mr. Yoshikoshi keeps meticulous tabs on who has promised to do what, by when.

Triumph Japan credits that "speed management," as the company dubs it, with helping it post 19 straight years of rising revenue and profits.