Donald Rumsfeld: How to Run a Meeting

No. 1 is to try to start the meeting as scheduled. To the extent that you don’t, you’re wasting the time of everyone else in the meeting. The same thing’s true with ending it, because people tend to have schedules of their own. Establishing a reasonably disciplined meeting culture leads to better preparation by the participants.

The second thought is that giving a good deal of attention to who the attendees are is important. I personally have been comfortable with being more inclusive rather than less. Some people prefer very small meetings, but it seems to me that when you’re inclusive you’re much more likely to hear different perspectives. For example, your general counsel isn’t the person who’s going to be dealing with you on a specific policy, but he’s a person whose perspective can be useful.

A third thing would be to call for clarity in presentation, so that the people in the room who don’t spend day and night on that particular issue can come out of the meeting with a broader understanding. Every bureaucracy develops their own language—their own jargon, abbreviations. The problem with that is, the higher up people are or the less involved they are in particular activities, the less likely they are to have a good working knowledge of all the acronyms. It’s particularly a problem for a President, who one minute is dealing with stem cell research and another minute is dealing with education. Jargon just wastes time. Even before a meeting starts, when I’ve taken people to brief a President, I’ve talked to them about the importance of their speech. The reason for talking is to be understood. How you get people to speak up is difficult. In the military, I’ve been in meetings where the chiefs of each service have been reluctant to talk about the other chiefs’ services. I suppose because they’re aware that to the extent they do, the other chiefs are going to talk about theirs. That is really not helpful. You need their brains. These are very accomplished individuals. You try to find people who are comfortable discussing things and don’t have that sensitivity. If people have a pattern of presenting the obvious, one would talk to them, and if it went on, you probably wouldn’t include them.

A fourth point is that when someone comes in and has a proposal, they often begin there. What I’ve tried to do in both business and government is to encourage people to come in and say, “Here’s the subject matter, and here are my assumptions.” It gives the listeners, the deciders, a chance to see how far the presenters have thought it through.

Finally, on standing meetings: I have a stand-up desk, and needless to say, when people come in with a purpose, if it’s a subject matter that lends itself to being decided that way, we would have stand-up meetings. Rather than serving coffee and getting comfortable and spending longer than needed or appropriate, it just worked out that way.

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