We Can't Keep Meeting Like This

Molly Rowe, for HealthLeaders Media, February 29, 2008

My recent article on the overuse of handheld devices initiated a number of heated responses. Readers had strong opinions on the use of PDAs in meetings, but they had even stronger opinions on meetings themselves. As one reader wrote, "It's not the PDA's fault if a meeting does not hold everyone's information; it's the meeting's fault."

Meetings and their usefulness, or lack there of, are a hot topic in any workplace. I've avoided the topic here because I wasn't sure I wanted to jump on the "Death by Meetings" bandwagon. Even more, I wasn't sure I wanted to admit that there's a little part of me that actually likes meetings.

Before you call me crazy, let me explain. Every day, I'm dragged into at least one 4-hour, 475-e-mail exchange about a topic that involves a group of people with vastly different opinions. These e-mails usually involve some degree of translation and spell-checking, and inevitably, someone hits "reply" instead of "reply all," omitting the rest of the stakeholders. During these interchanges, I can't help but think, "Can't we just have a 15-minute meeting about this!?"

The problem with meetings, I think, is that they rarely occur when someone says, "Can't we just have a 15-minute meeting?!" For a lot of people, scheduling meetings is a way to deal with stress at work. These folks send meeting invites like emotional eaters devour potato chips. As a result, meetings usually happen when they're not needed, and they don't occur when they should.

Meetings involve forethought and planning, but most meeting organizers think preparation means hitting "Send" on a meeting invite. That's probably why disorganized, rambling meetings top the list of workers' meeting frustrations, according to a 2007 poll by Opinion Research USA.

Healthcare's just like any other industry when it comes to meeting misuse and abuse. But as a healthcare leader, you have an added challenge: How do you bring together your organization's stakeholders without interrupting patient care? Executive staff may plan to attend meetings, but, for most physicians and nurses, every meeting-filled hour is an hour away from patients. So, how do you ensure that your meetings are effective?

St. Vincent Health System in Little Rock, AR, has some pretty strict guidelines around meetings.

My colleague Corey Christman wrote about St. Vincent in this month's issue of HealthLeaders magazine. To ensure proper preparation takes place, every meeting in the three-hospital system must be preceded by an e-mailed agenda, complete with proposed outcomes for the time spent. This helps ensure that the meeting runs efficiently and follow-up actions occur. The unexpected result of these rules, says president and CEO Peter Banko, is that meetings are more likely to start on time when every minute is accounted for.

Banko also had his executive team flush its calendars of any recurring meeting that no longer addresses its "original purpose." Who doesn't have an overload of unnecessary recurring meetings that could use cleaning up?

There's no question that meetings are essential to doing business. They bring together decision-makers, facilitate brainstorming, and save you from long, frustrating e-mail strings. The trick, however, is that both the invite and the actual meeting be well thought-out, useful, and informative. They should involve action, not just updates, and, where possible, they should involve only the key players. Although the root of healthcare is life and death, every meeting is not.

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at mrowe@healthleadersmedia.com.
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