OH NO, not another meeting! We have all had that reaction at one time or another when someone suggests there should be a meeting to resolve a problem, make a plan or update each other on office matters.

Often, it seems that the same topics are discussed over and over, but even though everybody has good ideas, the issues never get resolved.

Meetings can be an effective way to solve problems, or just a frustrating waste of time. The difference is in how the meeting is run.

There are five elements needed for a successful business meeting: an agenda, an agreed-upon format, a chairman, a scribe and a system of accountability.

The meeting agenda should be prepared and distributed in advance, so everyone knows what will be discussed.

The chairman typically prepares the agenda, based on inputs from the other participants. It is the chair's task to balance what everyone wants to include with what can be discussed in the time available.

If you disagree over what should be on the agenda, call for a vote before proceedings begin.

Every meeting should have a fixed ending time. An open-ended meeting will run until everyone gets exhausted or there are too few people remaining to make any decisions.

Agree on the format for the meeting before you begin. Will everyone be asked to speak in turn, or will there be an open discussion? How much time will be allotted for each topic?

Will decisions be made by the most senior person present, or by the group at large? How will the group make its decisions? Must agreement be unanimous, or will a majority vote suffice?

Keep on track

The chairman must actively run the meeting. He needs to keep an eye on the time, adhere to the format, manage interruptions and stick to the agenda.

If someone talks too much or gets off track, the chair must steer the speaker back to the point.

In a group of peers, you may want to rotate the position of chair, unless one of you is particularly good at it and could serve best in that role.

The scribe's job is to record what topics were discussed, any important points made, decisions reached and accountabilities assigned. He or she should distribute a copy of the record to the participants within 24 hours, while the details are still fresh in everyone's mind.

Accountability means that a person or group is assigned to do something specific by a certain date. "Jane will get quotes for leasing a photocopy machine and report back at the next meeting," is a statement of accountability.

A common mistake is to decide on a task without assigning who will do it or by when. Another is to make the task too vague, for example, "Jane will investigate our copying options."

The chair must make sure each decision has accountability assigned before moving on.

When you are meeting to solve a problem, make sure everyone first agrees on what the problem really is. "We need a copier," is actually a solution rather than a problem. The underlying problem might be, "We are spending too much time running out for copies."

The solution might be getting a copier, but it could also be organising work better, or designating someone to have all copies made once a day.

Not every issue can be resolved the first time it comes up, but it can be moved along. Make it a standing rule that some action must be taken about every item on your meeting agenda before the meeting concludes.