Not Another Pointless Meeting

September 1, 2005
Francine R. Gaillour, MD

Francine Gaillour, MD, on making the most of meetings.

"That meeting was a waste of time." How often do you say that? One of the biggest complaints I hear from busy physicians concerns the number of useless meetings they attend.

No doubt you have sat through department meetings, staff meetings, or other gatherings where nothing was really accomplished -- unless you count the political maneuvering and disrespectful comments.

Sadly, many of these meetings are run by physicians who ought to know better, especially when it comes to respecting time.

Your meetings don't have to be this way. Make them more successful by carefully planning your agenda and communicating your goals clearly, either before the meeting or at the meeting itself. To hold meetings that are an efficient use of time for both you and your participants, focus on what I call the "Four Pillars of Meetings that Work."

1. Develop clear objectives.

State why every meeting has been called, and identify what you want to achieve for each agenda item. Objectives of meetings and agenda items should be stated as one of the following:

  • To decide an issue;
  • To solicit input to foster further analysis for an action to be taken in the future; or
  • To impart information only. Time devoted to these kinds of meetings and agenda items should be brief.

2. Concentrate on what really matters.

The most important topic on your agenda should be the first order of business. Forget the idea that "old business" comes first. If you run out of time before you reach other agenda items or because your participants' energy levels have sunk, you will still have made progress on the most critical issues.

3. Set ground rules to stay focused.

State at the start of the meeting that you respect each other's input, and get agreement to keep everyone on task. While still respectful, these phrases can be used to keep the group focused on the objectives:

  • "I think we're getting off our topic here."
  • "What about deferring that conversation to another time?"
  • "What's on the table now? Are we staying with our objective of making a decision?"
  • "How does this relate to our objective of making a decision?"
  • "We have about 10 minutes left before we move on to our next item; how do we want to wrap this up?"

4. Get everyone's ideas on the table.

Typically, two or three vocal participants will take up a large percentage of discussion time. So be sure to solicit the input and ideas of the less-vocal attendees. Just because someone withholds their comments does not mean agreement or a lack of passion about a topic. People have different personality styles, and the less vocal often need more time to process their thoughts before making a tight, cogent argument. To gain input from all individuals, the leader or facilitator can say, "Let's get some thoughts from those of you who've been quietly thinking about this for the past 10 minutes," or specifically acknowledge individuals by name and ask for their input.

These strategies will help with most meetings. In instances where the participation of "high ego" physicians or leaders is critical to moving an initiative forward, consider bringing in a neutral facilitator or coach. A professional facilitator will ensure that you get input from everyone and that you meet your stated objectives, while preserving the energy and good feeling within the group.

The ability to run a meeting well is a critical skill for practice owners, department chairs, and others. Meetings are golden opportunities to shine as an even-handed, can-do, results-oriented "chief." Don't let them eat up precious time.

Francine R. Gaillour, MD, MBA, FACPE, is a professional facilitator and executive coaching resource for physicians who want to develop their potential as leaders, entrepreneurs, and business professionals. Her transition into business management came after 10 years of practicing in internal medicine. She can be reached at francine@physicianleadership.com, 888 562 7289, or at editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Physicians Practice.