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A guide to making boring meetings a thing of the past

Christopher Robbins/(c) Christopher Robbins

Boring Meetings Suck

By Jon Petz

(John Wiley, 223 pages, $27.95 )

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Years ago, Jon Petz called an important team meeting for 10 a.m. When nobody had arrived by that time, he began the meeting without them, talking, all by himself. When colleagues Linda and Sally strolled into the conference room with their coffees, he pointed to the agendas laid out on the table and announced: "We're on item No. 3."

Their jaws dropped. "We thought you were on a conference call," Linda replied, mystified by the apparent discussion. "Who are you talking to?" He ignored her and simply continued with the meeting. From that day on, his staff arrived on time for meetings, wary of what he might do next.

Mr. Petz, as you can tell, is an iconoclast, and in his book Boring Meetings Suck he offers "suckification reduction devices" - ideas to help you make meetings more effective. They include four new meeting styles:

Open house

Instead of calling a meeting for a specific time when everyone must gather, and having to synchronize the schedules of a group of busy people, open the meeting space for a specified period of time and allow people to share their thoughts on their own time. Let's say from 9 a.m. to noon on Thursday, people can go to the conference room and offer their ideas on such things as the use of sticky notes. From 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., people could return to comment on other ideas and place gold stars beside their three preferred solutions. From 4:45 p.m. to 5 p.m. the meeting ends with a brief discussion of the most popular solutions. Or use a wiki for a similar virtual meeting.

Pass the buck

Let team members take a stab at facilitating team meetings, so they know what it takes to make them effective. Chair the first one yourself, and then distribute a calendar of coming meeting organizers and facilitators. Provide the scheduled leaders with your format and suggestions if asked, but put the bulk of the organization and responsibility on that person. The mix of leadership formats and styles may help energize the sessions.

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Stand-up style

Avoid the slouch-back-and-relax mode of meetings by having everyone stand. Get rid of your conference room table and chairs, but keep a whiteboard or chalkboard for notes. This approach is particularly effective when you need to flush out quick ideas and move forward.

Triple T

Hold the meeting through texting, twittering, and other technologies, rather than in person. The effort takes place at a specified time of day or throughout an entire day, but attendees stay in their cubicles or offices. This can work best for idea generation or seeking feedback on uncomplicated ideas.

As for meetings that fail to start on time, besides starting without anyone and talking to yourself, Mr. Petz offers some helpful suggestions. He contends that setting an unusual starting time for the meeting - 11:01 a.m., say - will spur colleagues to pay more attention and presumably get them there on time. Or you could schedule social time before the meeting - bagels, conversation and networking at 10:50 a.m., with the meeting to start at 11:01 sharp. This also helps to siphon some of the social activities of a meeting into the prior session and make the meeting itself more efficient.

Another technique is "pass the pad" - the last person in the door has to take the meeting notes, having a summary completed and on the company server an hour after the meeting ends. If someone is taking notes and another person arrives even later, the pad is passed along.

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A theme of the book is that you need to take responsibility for meetings. Mr. Petz also offers suckification reduction devices for attendees, such as starting the meeting on your own with those in attendance if the facilitator is late, particularly if it's a regularly scheduled session and you know the attendees and format well.

Or, in his series of "get out" tips - advice on freeing yourself from meetings that are driving you nuts - he suggests that if you are the first one to the meeting and no one has arrived on time, leave your business card, with the time, and a note: "I was here for the 1 p.m. meeting but no one else was, so I assume it's cancelled. Call or text if the meeting happens." With luck, they won't.

Mr. Petz closes the book with that call to personal responsibility: "Everyone who has to attend meetings in their work-a-day life must take charge …. You can either sit back for the rest of your working life and just gripe and moan about how meetings waste your time, or you can do something about it." Doing something might involve reading his book, which has plenty of suggestions, although his irreverent approach, as exemplified by the book's title, sometimes gets in the way, forcing you to sort through some gaseous text and some impractical notions.



Laura Leist, founder of a consulting firm in Washington state called Eliminate Chaos, shares 25 techniques to improve your productivity in Eliminate Chaos at Work (John Wiley, 226 pages, $27.95). She focuses on four broad areas: time management, paper management, electronic information management, and organizing your work space or office. She has a no-nonsense approach, as when she advises: "Technology devices that have an on switch also have an off switch." But she understands the foibles of human beings struggling with clients who aren't always easy to change, so her advice, which often comes in action checklists, is worth imbibing.

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