Is the time you spend in meeting productive?

If you're like most bank managers, the answer is no. Although managers spend up to 60% of their time in meetings, few are satisfied with the results.

But there are ways to make meetings more productive.

Rich Potential

A meeting that works right is an unbeatable way to solve problems, develop new products, and share concerns, said Kevin Crosby, a partner in the Buffalo consulting firm of Huyler Associates.

"Meetings are an ideal opportunity to get the inpur of several people at once, improve communication, and coordinate activities," said Mr. Crosby, whose firm advises companies on how to conduct meetings.

But many meetings lack focus, so "most people have a very negative attitude toward them," he said.

Mr. Crosby and his partner, George Huyler, veterans of the now-defunct Goldome, have identified ways to keep meetings on track.

Meetings should always start and end on time, they say, and participants should all have copies of the agenda in advance to get their brains working on the issue or problem ahead of time.

"The objective of a meeting is often not clearly defined," said Mr. Crosby. "If people aren't sure why they are there, it's harder to get them to focus on a common goal."

Even when the purpose of the meeting is stated, sometimes it's described too broadly to do any good.

A meeting held to discuss how to reach more consumers with advertising is bound to produce more ideas than if everyone gathers just to discuss advertising in general.

Grading Performance

Banks should also rate the performance of their meetings. One system is:

* First, ask participants if they thought a particular meeting was helpful.

* Then determine whether all agenda items were discussed.

* Finally, measure the investment of time and money against the results achieved.

This "cost-benefit" tool can be a powerful eye-opener. Mr. Huyler estimates that if a group of eight employees meet every week for four hours and the average salary of the group is $35,000, the annual cost of the meeting is about $50,000. If a bank has many such groups, the overall cost can be substantial.

Another way to improve meetings is to rotate responsibilities for certain team roles, Mr. Crosby of Huyler Associates say each meeting should have a facilitator to monitor the meeting process, a timekeeper to keep things moving along, and a note taker to jot down ideas. The note taker is especially important.

"A lot of ideas get lost after a meeting because no one wrote them down," Mr. Crosby said.

Assigning roles in one way to get everyone involved in the meeting and facilitate communication and the exchange of ideas. Encouraging an open, nonjudgmental atmosphere is another.

"When people are in meetings, their self-esteem is on the line," said Jim Ferry, a principal with Creative Realities Inc., a Boston consulting firm that helps companies enhance their creativity.

"They're concerned about how they are viewed by their peers and more importantly, by their bosses. Many don't talk, and if they do, they make sure their idea is ironclad, which usually means dull, drabm, and boring."

Mr. Ferry says his firm helps participants keep judgements at bay while new ideas are being generated in an environmental he calls "disciplined chaos."

Citibank has used Creative Realities' principles to enhance its credit card products.

"We're constantly looking for ways to add value to our card," said Fran Gromley, Citibank's former director of consumer strategic planning and now a consultant to the bank.

"We conduct brainstorming sessions on a quarterly basis because we like to keep turning the ball and looking at things from a different perspective."

These quarterly sessions are composed of a team of six to eight people called "creative all-stars." The team includes representatives from the bank as well as people selected by Creative Realities, including a lawyer with a passion for mythology, a comedy writer from "Saturday Night Live," and a former advertising creative director.

"First we delineate the task, identify the card we want to work on and who it's for," Ms. Gormley said. "Then we spend the morning generating as many ideas as possible using a number of techniques like thinking about a favorite movie scene, finding a word that describes it, and relating it to a credit card."

A typical session can generate as many as 100 ideas.

"Attending these meetings does require patience," Ms. Gormley added. "You can't make a face when you hear something you've heard before."

After a morning of throwing out ideas, the group chooses the newest and most intriguing and starts picking them apart to make them doable.

The Refining Process

"At first, an idea is far from perfect. Usually it stinks," said Mr. Ferry. "Now is the time for the gorup to find the flaws, asking |What's wrong with this? What can go wrong?' They can shape it, modify it, or combine it with something else."

Ms. Gormley credits the process with two Citibank credit card successes: preferred rates for its best customers and a price protection program that gives customers refunds up to $150 if they find a recent purchase at a better price than what they paid.

Generating and refining ideas, however, is only one part of the process, Mr. Ferry said. Seeing it through in the world outside the meeting is just as important.

"There's a tendency for new ideas to go on the back burner," he said. For that reason, people are assigned to "nurture" the new ideas. Because nurturers feel ownership of the ideas, they are more likely to confront and overcome obstacles on the way to implementation.

Mr. Ferry's technique isn't limited to new product development. Corporate policy, human resource issues, and customer service are just some of the areas that are fertile ground for new ideas.

Encouraging the free flow of ideas and reprogramming the way meetings are run requires the commitment of managers and a corporate environment open to change. The return is well worth the effort.

"No one person has all the answers," said Citibank's Ms. Gormley.

"The more perspectives there are, the more likely you are to create somethings."

Ms. Monahan is a freelance writer based in New York.

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