Meeting overkill – how to cure it
Talking about work
It’s a fact: on average, executives spend several hours a day in meetings; the higher their rank, the more hours. But that doesn’t mean they feel meetings are useful, or that their work is getting done more effectively – on the contrary: most executives consider meetings to be a massive waste of time. Indeed, a Microsoft survey conducted in 2005 in 200 countries found that an amazing 71% of respondents thought that meetings were “not productive,” while 32% chose unclear objectives, lack of communication and “ineffective meetings” as the most common hindrances to their productivity.
Think about what all these “ineffective meetings” are costing your organisation in work time! Do you know what percentage of your operational costs actually goes towards talking about work rather than doing it?
To reduce costs, we need to stop wasting time. We may not be able to reduce the number of meetings we have to go to, but we can at least stop wasting time in bad meetings. So how can you make your meetings more productive?
1. Do you really need to have a meeting?
Before you schedule a meeting, think about whether it’s really necessary. Try to define the purpose: “This meeting is to discuss … / review … / decide …” If you can’t define the purpose, you’re not ready to discuss anything.
2. Plan it properly
Think about who really needs to be there – don’t just automatically invite everyone who might be remotely connected to the project. Remember, time is money. Who can provide information or resources? Who can share relevant experience? Whose support or permission will you need? Who might oppose the project later?
3. Where and when?
Choose a room that’s large enough to seat everyone, and a time that won’t make them cross (office hours are good; the lunch hour is not). If essential people are unable to attend, reschedule. And don’t send out the invitation two minutes before the meeting begins – 24 hours’ notice means you won’t be sitting in a meeting room all on your own.
4. Write an agenda
The agenda defines the meeting’s purpose and focus and should be sent out as soon as the meeting time has been fixed, along with relevant material. Think about what you want the meeting to achieve – “Begin with the end in mind” – then write down the topics for discussion, adding next to each one the reason why you’ve included it, for example, “Decision to be taken,” or “Confirm date.” Avoid “Any other business”: it’s too vague. If people have extra points to discuss, they should be encouraged to send them to you when you’re writing the agenda.
5. Watch the clock
Remember that your aim is to complete your business within the time slot. Start and finish your meeting on time. Make sure you arrive punctually and make it clear you expect other people to do the same. Don’t wait for late arrivals and don’t repeat what’s already been discussed when they do finally turn up. Keep your cell phone in your pocket and discourage other people from using theirs; notebook PCs should be left behind on people’s desks: unless they’re vital to the meeting, these are just distractions. Read the agenda once through aloud, setting a positive tone, saying, “This is what I’d like to cover in today’s meeting.” Keep the meeting moving, with an eye on the clock – not obsessively, but making it clear that this is business only. (Companies find their own way to do this: at Google, for example, they project a huge ticking stopwatch from a computer onto the wall during meetings; at other companies, there are no chairs in meeting rooms, and PPT presentations are time limited. See what works for you.)
6. Total participation
The best way to keep people awake and focused is to make them participate. Don’t just drone through each point on the agenda, giving your own opinions; bring the meeting alive by inviting people to interact with each other, for example by asking, “What do you feel about that, John? Do you think it’s possible?” This will reduce the possibility of problems or disagreement arising later. And very important: always appoint someone to take the minutes, stating who attended the meeting, what was discussed, what agreements were reached, and what action is to be taken.
7. Keep it on track
Private conversations waste time and are annoying. So if people are whispering to each other in the meeting, look straight at them, raise your eyebrows or wave, and ask them to rejoin the group discussion. Don’t display anger or sarcasm, just say, “Sorry, but I can’t keep track of the discussion if everyone’s talking at once.” The other participants will be grateful and the meeting will end on time.
8. Deal with difficult people
All offices have them: people who monopolise meetings, and those who always try to divert the discussion. There are the constant jokers, and people who enjoy opposing ideas just for the sake of it. Don’t let these people undermine your meeting; they’re just playing games and wasting everyone’s time. Tell the “diverter” that what he’s said isn’t relevant to this meeting, but that you’ll be pleased to discuss it later. Say to the “opposer”, “Let’s tackle that possibility if and when it arises.” Be firm; you’re in charge.
9. Wrap up
Bring the meeting to a proper end by broadly summarizing what needs to be done and who’s going to do it. This will be written down in the minutes and constitutes an action plan which you can check in follow-up meetings. And, don’t forget, before everyone leaves, thank them for attending and give them a smile.
10. Minutes within hours
The sooner you send out the minutes the better: people will usually wait for them before beginning their tasks. Do it the same day or within 24 hours, and if possible add when and where the next meeting will be held.
If you stick to these rules, you’ll find that instead of dreading meetings, your employees will see them as valuable tools to share information and set goals – not as a complete waste of time where they just stare out of the window and check their phones. After all, no one wants to stay late at work, do they?