The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article on How to Run A Meeting. Unfortunately it is only available online to subscribers. The article, by Gary A. Olson who is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Idaho State University, includes much common-sense advice, a great deal of it probably obvious, and some things I would have thought were obvious but which long experience has shown are anything but.
The article includes a list of do's and don't that I thought I might reprint here (they have bullet points) along with some comments about how they apply to the peculiar environment that is a law school (peculiar because it's a small community where folks tend to know each other fairly well, where they are long-term repeat players, and all too well steeped in the arcana of procedure). So, here goes:
- Cancel a meeting if you have a light agenda. Better to have a fuller agenda at the next regularly scheduled session than to ask colleagues to meet with little to do. Remember: It takes time to prepare for and arrive at a meeting, and that, too, is valuable time.
I'd go even further: schedule all meetings at the start of the year so people can protect the time on their calendars; if you are going to cancel a meeting, try to cancel before the last minute.
- Hand out an agenda in advance of the meeting. A published agenda helps everyone stay on track.
I'm amazed at how rare this is.
- Always limit the length of a meeting and monitor the time so that it doesn't go on too long. For example, don't schedule an hour meeting if the tasks at hand can reasonably be accomplished in a half-hour.
This appears to have little applicability to law schools, or at least our law school, where the challenge is usually to fit everything in to the time allotted.
- When appropriate, pass out supporting documents in advance so that people can arrive prepared. The better prepared that committee members are, the more likely they are to work efficiently.
I couldn't agree more; and yet most people don't seem to expect this for some strange reason, and it often doesn't happen.
- Begin every meeting on time, not 10 minutes late. That practice is a sign of respect for committee members' time, and it cuts down on the likelihood of rushing through part of the agenda later. (And once members know that you will always begin punctually, they will be more likely to show up on time.)
Yes, please. Please?
- Immediately after calling a meeting to order, make clear the purpose and objectives of the session: “We need to make three key decisions this morning.” The best committee chair is goal oriented and guides the group from task to task.
I think if there's a written agenda, lawyers don't need this spelled out to them.
- Establish guidelines for members' participation and behavior. For example: “Members will be expected to limit their contributions to a discussion to no longer than two minutes at a time; no one member will be allowed to filibuster or monopolize.” Or, “Members will be expected to adhere to the topic at hand and not lead the discussion off to other subjects.”
Perhaps in a large formal environment something like this is necessary, but given the small community of a law school, and the relatively small size of most committees this seems needlessly stuffy and bureaucratic. True, if you have the misfortune to have someone who goes on and on, this reduces your standing to stop them, but in my experience nothing will stop them anyway.
- Use e-mail to conduct minor committee work so as to save face-to-face time for more important tasks.
- Conduct your meeting not only efficiently but fairly. Steamrolling through the decision-making process without providing adequate time for discussion and deliberation does not equate to efficiency.
Again, telling this to people who have studied Due Process seems somewhat redundant. If they don't already get the fairness concept, this won't suddenly cause a revelation. In my experience, though, the steamroller committee chair is a pretty rare phenomenon. Rather, our training leads us to debate things to death, even when the issues don't deserve it.
I'd be interested in hearing other advice for running good meetings. It's certainly not a skill I would profess to have in abundance. And, fortunately, it's also not a skill I have to exercise very often.
(Going beyond the 'how to run a meeting' topic, Provost Olson also endorses the idea of an 'Executive Committee' that would roll up the work of several other committees, thus freeing up more faculty to do research. He even suggests that this group shoulder all the burden of making decisions, and should be rewarded for the burden of exercising their power by extra pay or release time. I think that's not a good idea for a law school, whatever its virtues in a large public university.)
During the meeting, assign action items to individuals attending. List the action items at the end of the meeting and put them on the agenda for the next meeting.