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Monday, 12 March 2012 09:54

Effective meetings require planning, process

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WEST MICHIGAN — Most professionals dread large-scale meetings and events: the packets, the lines, the droning speakers. Even small, in-house meetings develop into sources of stress and angst.

Companies both large and small have developed time-tested practices that smooth the wrinkles meetings and events can cause, even as technological innovation shifts the meetings landscape.

But some companies find breaking meeting norms to be an effective way to get the full attention of attendees. One recent phenomenon is the daily stand-up status meeting. Originally developed by custom software firms that use the agile development method, the goal of the meeting is to reduce the amount of time employees spend in tedious team meetings and increase the productivity of the staff as a whole.

Atomic Object LLC, a Grand Rapids-based software engineering firm, has been using stand-up meetings for years.

“These meetings are a great way to start the day,” said Michael Marsiglia, VP at Atomic Object.

The meetings involve the full staff of Atomic Object in a standing-only setting. The prohibition on tables and chairs means employees are less likely to zone-out or be distracted by laptops or smartphones that normally would sit in front of them. Clients also benefit from these meetings, Marsiglia said.

“If everyone comes together, everyone has a voice. This way, project teams can find support if they’re having trouble and clients get the benefit of the whole agency,” not just the two- or three-man teams assigned to a single project, he said.

Adam Schomaker, sales manager of the Grand Rapids JW Marriott, has observed other innovative concepts in meetings he’s been involved in hosting.

“Meetings in the past five years have changed a lot,” said Schomaker. “The trend has been shifting from elaborate and money-driven meetings to strategic events focused on theme and direction.”

Large corporations have been changing practices and are now holding regional meetings as opposed to national gatherings in destination-type cities like Las Vegas or Miami. Companies have also been combining corporate meetings with incentive meetings and holding them in locations where the company has interests. Schomaker points out the recent trend in Kellogg holding its meetings in Grand Rapids, Lansing or Battle Creek — where its headquarters is located.

Technology has also had a massive impact on meetings, Schomaker said. In his work at the JW Marriott, Schomaker sees companies displaying a live Twitter feed tied to the event’s hashtag, virtual meetings and virtual scavenger hunts that act as icebreakers for attendees.

“The biggest thing that has happened to meetings is technology. Companies have the ability to crowdsource planning of the event to the attendees,” said Schomaker. “Companies are also incorporating social media breakout sessions into their meetings.”

By crowdsourcing the meeting planning, attendees can have a direct impact on who the presenters are and what sorts of topics are discussed.

While technology has revolutionized many aspects of the planning and execution of events and meetings, it cannot eliminate them altogether. Schomaker points out that “companies value face-to-face,” and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

While getting key people together is important, meetings must also focus on deliverables.

Marylu Dykstra, principal of Sirius Resources LLC, focuses primarily on working with nonprofits, although she has worked with large public companies. Regardless of the organization, Dykstra stresses the importance of delivering results as key to the success of any meeting.

“You have to make sure it [the event] pays the organization back, whether in behavioral change, PR or money,” Dykstra said.

One key feature Dykstra recommends all planners incorporate into their meetings and events is time to network.

“You have to embed at least 30 minutes break time to allow people to talk and process what they’ve learned,” she said. “You have to strike a balance between organized activities and participation.”

Dykstra also pointed out the importance of having a common theme flow through the entire experience from start to finish so attendees have a way to tie the whole meeting or event together.

“All in all, I look at the results,” said Dykstra. “Pulling something off like this is one of the most exhilarating things I do.”

Large meetings and events are “like planning a wedding, with content,” said Kathy Woronko, manager of brand education at Steelcase Inc. As such, she said the company is purposeful and deliberate in its planning process.

Woronko organizes regular dealer meetings for Steelcase, along with its involvement at trade shows and large, internal meetings. All told, Steelcase is involved in 79 large-scale events per year, many of which are held in its Grand Rapids meeting center, Steelcase Town Hall.

For each event, Woronko follows a multi-tiered process to ensure it goes according to plan. First, an executive owner is selected to steer the event. The executive owner then appoints a strategy team of vice presidents. They develop the objectives of the meeting and a block plan and appoint a core team.

Each core team members is responsible for one aspect of the event, for example food and beverage or logistics. The consolidation of responsibilities streamlines the planning process by creating only one contact point for both superiors and subordinates, thus preventing the “too many cooks” problem.

Woronko cites the importance of having a solid procedure while planning meetings and events: “It’s pretty easy once you have a process in place.”

That’s also true at National Heritage Academies, a multi-state charter school organization headquartered in Grand Rapids. Max Hunsicker, senior director of coaching and learning at NHA, is involved in the planning and execution of the organization’s two biggest annual events held at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids: a new teacher training event and an event for existing teachers and principals.

Hunsicker said he appreciates the importance of having a solid process in developing meetings, but he also values flexibility and foresight as key components for any successful meeting.

“You need to have plans in place in the event anything happens,” said Hunsicker. “When something does, be flexible, stay calm and think about alternatives.”

As an example, Hunsicker recalls the downtown power outage this past summer.

“You really had to think on your feet. We had 600 people coming down for breakfast, and no power,” he said.

For both major events, Hunsicker stresses the importance of being prepared. Every aspect of the week is intensely planned out in advance, especially components that involve a third party vendor or speaker. Logistics are planned in advance, from food and beverages provided through catering from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel to transportation for teachers to and from the airport.

Jennifer Luth, public relations associate at Clark Communications, has a different perspective on events and meetings. Because of Clark Communications’ size — two full-time employees — most of its meetings and events involve working with outside parties: either clients or the press. Still, many of the same strategies apply, even when scaled-down.

“You need to get all your ducks in a row. Be there early and have things set up and ready to go,” Luth said of media events. “It’s important to double check everything, especially logistics like parking.”

As an example, Luth mentions the press opening of Grove, the newest addition to the Essence Restaurant Group.

“We had to make sure the sample drinks were made, the food was ready and that James Berg [Essence Restaurant Group Managing Partner] was there,” said Luth. “A lot of what goes on is connecting the media to the right people to answer their questions.”

For weekly in-house meetings, Clark Communications follows a straightforward, agenda-based approach using visual task management on a whiteboard as well as a constantly updated task list organized in Microsoft Outlook. For client meetings, Clark Communications also keeps things simple and clear with an agenda and the team members “give the client a visual so they’re on the same page as us,” said Luth.

Top 5 Meetings Tips

Planning an effective meeting or conference starts with a “solid team with strong, decisive leadership,” according to Marylu Dykstra, principal of Sirius Resources LLC. She advises any organization to bring on the leadership team early in the development process, and added that it helps to know each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. “Hold each member accountable for budget, time, effort and input,” she said. “And have a little fun along the way.” Other tips:

  1. Define the end result: What are you doing?
    Itemize all possible objectives and outcomes in order to plan for them. Determine the “flavor” of the event.  Is the conference educational, promotional, or something else entirely?
  2. Define your motives:
    Why are you doing this? You must know your motives so that you can plan strategies to achieve them.
  3. Establish your evidence of success.
    This is the “design brief” portion of the planning. Itemizing and measuring your success requires specificity. The points that must be developed include at minimum:
    --budget and -return on investment – what’s it worth to us?
    --number of attendees – desired number, venue capacity, cost and the number the group can expect to attract; --aesthetics – the overall look and feel of the event, venue and materials contributes to the total experience.
  4. Create your value proposition.
    Develop the language to explain the value of the event to your own organization, the participants (attendees, speakers, volunteers, etc.) and to the community. This is the foundation for your marketing and public relations.
  5. Build your event backwards.
    Set your date and work backwards to address the time it takes to get things done.
Read 2654 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 11:31

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