01/15/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Your Company's 'Cardiovascular' System: How Healthy Is It?

Think of it this way: Your meetings, collectively, and the culture that holds sway in them, are really the "cardiovascular" system of your company. Just as your arteries bring life-giving blood to all parts of your body, so too does your meeting system channel the communication of ideas, solutions, decisions, and so on, that enable your business to run.

We all know what happens when your arteries get clogged. The result is exactly the same when your meetings ramble, waste time, avoid tough issues, stifle creativity and evade or delay critical decisions.

In view of this, it's always amazed us that organization-wide "meeting hygiene" doesn't get raised to the level of a major corporate strategy instead of simply being the subject of the occasional, half-day training refresher.

Your "Arteries": Clogged or Free-Flowing?
So how healthy is your company's "cardiovascular" system? Does information -- especially bad news -- travel fast, especially up the management chain? Do decisions get made with dispatch? What's the ratio of productive meeting outcomes to the time you spend in meetings? And are people focused on improving the effective functioning of your internal meeting system to keep your business "arteries" healthy and free-flowing?

Clearly, the way people conduct and behave in meetings is an important element in your corporate culture. And changing it requires effort over time. But the first step is having a clear idea of how to go about it.

Below are some no-nonsense, concrete guidelines you can follow to improve the effectiveness of your company's "cardiovascular" system. We know they work because we use them constantly with our own clients, who are often exhilarated at how much more productive the meetings we run for them are than their own.

A Prescription for "Cardiovascular" Health
To keep your company's "cardiovascular" system healthy and free-flowing, you should ensure that your meetings exhibit the following elements:

First: Clear Desired Outcomes
Start by asking, "What are the desired outcomes of this meeting or series of meetings? Make it concrete. We frame the question by saying to our clients, "Imagine we're walking out of the meeting. What is it you would want to have produced or decided or created or resolved?" Then, write that down and make it clear to everyone involved. It will be your "star to steer by."

Second: Clear Boundary Conditions
Identify any parameters or "givens" that the meeting outcomes must not violate. Nothing is more wasteful of time or demoralizing to a team than finding out after the fact that one of their recommendations overstepped their authority or violated internal compliance or government regulations, for example.

Third: Explicit Metrics
Define up-front the metrics by which your meeting outcomes will be evaluated. If the desired outcome is cost reduction, how much? If a problem must be solved, how, specifically, will the solution's impact be measured? By what percent must the cycle-time of the process to be improved be reduced, and so on.

Fourth: Meeting Process Design
Design (plan) the meeting to achieve your stated outcomes. This doesn't mean simply a list of content topics with a time-allotment for each. That's only the what of the meeting. We mean the how. The steps required for a problem-solving meeting, for example, are different from those for a creative brainstorming session. An information sharing meeting is built differently from a process-mapping meeting, and so on. You need to plan these steps in advance to ensure you'll get to the outcomes you want. (If this area of group process design and facilitation is new to you and your company, then seek outside help so you can bring these skills into your organization.)

Fifth: Timetable & Accountability Structure
When the outcome of your meeting is an action plan, as is very often the case, be sure to define and publicize a concrete timeline for everyone to march to. And set up an agreed-upon structure and schedule to revisit these commitments in order to hold everyone accountable for delivering.

Better "Circulation" for a Healthier Business
Like anything else, if you aren't following these practices now, at first, they'll take some getting used to. We've seen clients post placards or small signs, summarizing these points briefly, in all company conference rooms. This can help to make these guidelines part of "the way we do things around here."

However you decide to do it, one thing is certain: Improving your company's "circulation" can't help but have a positive impact on your company's overall health. An improvement in the overall effectiveness of how your company processes ideas, makes decisions and develops its plans is bound to result in quicker, more solid execution of your business strategy and its supporting initiatives. And make no mistake about it: Faster, better execution, in and of itself, can be a decisive competitive advantage for your company.

Ray Gagnon is principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in team and organizational effectiveness, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.