Fish, or so the saying goes, are the last to understand water. That proverb may explain why corporate employees who spend up to 75 percent of their time in meetings have difficulty making those meetings effective.
Surely it isn't for lack of advice on how to run a meeting. Reams have been written on the topic - everything from where to sit (so the boss can see you but your supervisor can't) to minute descriptions of what the meeting room should look like.
But the most important details to grasp if you want to save time, says Frederick Harmon, field marketing vice-president of the American Management Associations in New York, involve knowing ''what kind of meeting it is - either an information meeting, where you need to share basic information, or a decisionmaking meeting, centered around a common problem. A lot of wasted time comes out of mixing those two aims,'' he says.
Others - notably George Prince, author of ''The Practice of Creativity'' - say information meetings as such ''are inexcusably wasteful,'' since they tend to dissolve into lectures. But another executive finds them handy for ''generating excitement about a project'' and lauds their effectiveness in businesses where ''nobody reads memos or studies.''
Mr. Harmon thinks information meetings can be made most effective with the use of an agenda generated before the meeting. ''Ask everyone who speaks about how long he'll need and note the time on the agenda,'' he advises. ''And set a brisk pace. There's almost no excuse for an information meeting to run overtime.''
Decisionmaking meetings, on the other hand, can and often do take longer than anticipated - and that's all right, says the vice-president: ''If you try to ramrod through something and only develop a halfhearted consensus among the participants, it will save you time that day, but will cost you more time in the long run.'' If everyone is firmly committed to the decision, he points out, they'll carry it out with more enthusiasm - and more effectiveness.
The key to making a decisionmaking meeting go smoothly, then, is to ''make sure you've gathered enough information beforehand so participants have what they need to make an informed decision,'' Mr. Harmon says.
Of course, few employees are in charge of every meeting they attend, but experts have advice for participants, too:
* ''Stay awake,'' Mr. Harmon says. ''The old saying about long-winded meetings is that you had to learn to sleep with both eyes open. But if you stay awake and sum up points made along the way, you can help to move it along.''
* ''Downplay difficult parts of the meeting,'' says Frank Snell, head of a New York advertising agency and author of several business books. ''Solve simple problems first; it can set a pattern.''
* Find something of value in every problem-solving suggestion and emphasize that first, says Mr. Prince. A meeting is designed to use the creative resources of each participant - something that goes more smoothly when such resources are appreciated, he says.
* ''Know your own biases and be prepared to handle contributions that may violate them," says Leslie This, head of a management-training consulting firm.
Finally, for the desperate, here are a couple of push-them-along hints offered by Robert Townsend, irreverent author of ''Up the Organization'': Hold all meetings standing up, so the participants don't have a chance to get too comfortable - and hold all meetings at 4:30 on Friday afternoon.
That should speed them up.