Department Focus: Human Resources--Death by Meetings

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If your team spends most of the day around a table deliberating, it may be time to take a hard look at your meeting schedule.

Interminable meetings are the archenemy of productivity. Everyone knows that, right? So why does your team spend so much time around a conference room table? Out of habit, many healthcare organizations stall in implementing changes to their meeting structure. To keep your meetings moving along, consider the following advice:

Stick to an agenda. Every meeting at St. Vincent Health System, which includes a 312-staffed-bed hospital, a rehab hospital, three medical centers and 11 medical clinics, must be preceded by an e-mailed agenda, complete with proposed outcomes for the time spent. This rule is part of a newly created initiative to reduce the time-suck of meetings, led in part by the Little Rock, AR, system's president and chief executive officer, Peter D. Banko. Detailed agendas ensure that all attendees are aware of the purpose of the meeting and the action points that may come out of it, says Banko. The agendas also help employees hold each other accountable for the time. "I've notice that people are making sure meetings are starting on time," he says.

Ask questions. Don't allow employees to sleep with their eyes open in your meetings. William R. Daniels, CEO of American Consulting & Training, Inc., in Mill Valley, CA, and an expert in organizational change and meetings management, recommends that all meetings begin by addressing the same question: What are we going to do with this group's control of certain resources in the near future to solve problem X? Critical questions help engage employees in problem solving and encourage the exchange of useful and profitable information. "By addressing meetings in this manner, a liveliness will be restored that you usually only see when the talks revolve around the budget and HR issues," says Daniels.

Focus on decisions. The purpose of meetings should be to make decisions and communicate effectively. These types of action-oriented meetings have helped improve physician relations at St. Vincent, says Banko. "The physicians are seeing more momentum, and things are getting responded to in a more rapid manner."

Face conflict. The decision-making process can be a difficult one, but it's essential that executives commit to leading their teams through changes and providing the resources necessary to accomplish goals. In short, leaders cannot be complacent, says Daniels. "Managers cannot be conflict aversive, or they should not be managers."

Cut the fat. As an additional component of the initiative to make meetings more efficient at St. Vincent, Banko had his entire executive team review their calendars and remove any recurring meetings that have morphed over time and no longer address the original purpose of the meeting. Additionally, no clinical leadership can schedule a meeting before 10 a.m. any day of the week, and every other Friday must be clear of meetings entirely. The penalty for scheduling a meeting on a "no meeting" Friday? The manager and his or her direct reports have to perform a song-and-dance routine for the entire leadership group. "I think it'll be good for the group to see that there's teeth in it, that people should take it seriously," says Banko. "It'll create an opportunity for us to have some fun, too."

Such measures may seem extreme, but the reduction in the number of meetings, as well as the limit on when the meetings occur, encourages leadership to focus on the most important aspect of their jobs: the individual relationships with staff members, patients, physicians and community leaders.

"I think our patients, our staff and our physicians expect us to be available to solve their problems, and committees and meetings are not always the best way to do that," says Banko.

-Corey Christman

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