Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Meeting Manager

This is a small part of a bigger idea - but this came first, and would be a useful product on its own.

Companies have meetings. When I invented this idea, I was part of a small startup, and we were having too many meetings. Within a few days of this idea popping unbidden into my head, the startup merged with another company, and the number of meetings skyrocketed. Now I've moved to a big corporate behemoth. I think all I do these days is meet. And prepare to meet. And sometimes have met. Also I write software, but that's strictly on my own time...

Meetings have a format. Its not hard - but so often people forget to follow it. And when the format is not followed, meetings become more and more of a waste of time.

The format - for those who don't know - is

An agenda is sent to all invitees. This allows people to decide if they need to come to the meeting (well, in general the people the agenda is sent to, are expected to attend - or apologise, the people it is cc.ed to can attend if they want)
A reminder is sent nearer to the time.
People arrive at the meeting. It starts on time.
The minutes of the last meeting are read out. People have the opportunity to accept them or reject them (this is tricky. In the email age, we can let people accept or reject minutes before the next meeting)
Each action from the minutes is discussed. The person who is actioned reports on their progress.
We then move through each agenda item in turn. At the end of each item it is decided if any actions need to be taken. These actions, and the people actioned are agreed upon there and then.
Finally we get to Any Other Business (AOB). In general there should not be any other business - you have had the agenda ahead of time, you should have been able to contact the writer of the agenda and get your item submitted so that people can prepare. The chairman needs to be firm here.
If it is agreed that a further meeting is needed, the time and date should be set.
Following the meeting - within the next 24 hours or so, minutes should be sent out - to all invitees. They should also be made available online to other people with an interest.

Much of this can be automated.

First - the list of invitees: this is often going to stay much the same for each meeting type. Sure, their may be the occasional guest or change in group member, but lists of group members can be maintained to ensure we know exactly who has been invited.

The agenda: this can be sent out by email (for people where an email address exists) and by post (for people where we only have a postal address). Software can make the decision as appropriate. But we can also provide a website which people can connect to to suggest changes or additions to the agenda. This makes collating the agenda an open and collaborative task.

The reminder: This can be automatically sent out

The meeting: Google have talked about an interesting trick - when they hold meetings, each agenda item is given a fixed period of time. On a screen the agenda and a clock are displayed - you know from this exactly what agenda item you should be on, and how long you have left to discuss it.

More importantly, you can display the current agenda item on a screen so that people know what is discussed. As decisions are made, or actions are assigned, these can be input into the computer by either the secretary or the chair. People can see them as they are added - this makes contesting the minutes later on harder.

You can also automatically import the action items from previous meetings for discussion as the meeting begins.

When the meeting concludes, you will already have half of your minutes. The secretary can add any additional detail from his or her notes, and then send them out to everyone involved (again, printing those which need to be posted). The minutes will also be automatically uploaded to an internal document repository (so they can be view by the appropriate people)

Since the new minutes are now online and available, people have the opportunity to comment on them - accept them or reject them straight away. This means revised minutes can be produced, making agreement more likely at the next meeting. people can also make notes on their own actions, so that their status is visible to everybody involved.

None of this is essential, and most of it could be done within some of the better business process and business document management tools. But a standalone tool which does this easily and perfectly without rough edges would be sure to win fans amongst those who like their meetings to run like clockwork.

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