“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”
– Dave Barry, American Author
Bad meetings drive me absolutely nuts! You are probably the same way. I mean spending an hour with 10 people crammed into a room talking over each other, not paying attention most of the time, with no actual progress made is so painful and a massive waste of resources.
Office workers spend on average 16 hours of their workweek in meetings. 16 hours! That equates to 20 full workweeks during a year, 16 years over a career. Meetings are a great place to start to tackle inefficiencies.
What are the five main reasons for meetings?
The five main reasons for meetings are:
Often meetings aren’t even the right tool for these five main reasons. There are collaboration tools, email, phone calls, ad hoc conversations, etc. And, then there are the inevitable scheduling delays and the unnecessary work put into making the perfect presentation. So, what to do about the meeting time suck?
Let’s take a lesson from Amazon, which is legendary about meeting management. First, Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint from Amazon meetings. At Amazon meetings, people start the meeting by reading a written memo on the purpose of the meeting, decisions to be made, and various arguments. Meeting attendees spend 5-15 minutes quietly reading the content of the memo and then open the session up for discussion. The idea of the memo is based on the belief that better logic and thinking goes into a written memo than the bullet points on a PowerPoint. It also puts the responsibility on the memo writer to ensure facts, logic, and ideas are well represented and thought through. The 5-15 minutes of reading allows everyone to get up to speed and on the same page, which makes for a more efficient discussion and debate. Amazon also has a two-pizza rule to minimize the number of attendees.
How do you reduce the time spent in meetings?
In organizations filled with meetings, you can eliminate at least 50% of the collective time spent in meetings. There are two ways to attack the meeting disease. You can reduce the number of meetings and the length of meetings. Here are the best practices for each strategy.
1. Reduce the number of meetings
Do you need a meeting?
We all encounter meetings to cover things that don’t need a meeting. When meetings pop up, you have to question the “why” of the meeting. What is the agenda, and what makes the agenda necessitate a meeting? Also, attack the cultural aspect of meetings. People often set up meetings as a justification for their work. The more discipline a company has around meeting protocol and hygiene, the fewer meetings.
Do you need everyone on the invite list?
Why are there 12 people invited to the meeting? Isn’t that a bit of overkill? Make sure you really need everyone on that invite. What is their particular purpose or value-add to the meeting? Use the RACI tool to understand who should be Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed.
Can you eliminate, combine or spread out meetings?
The easiest way to reduce the number of standing meetings is to eliminate, combine or spread them out. Eliminate the meetings that are no longer necessary, that no longer have a purpose. Combine those meetings with similar goals, decisions, and participants. And, spread out the dates of meetings. Can some of the weekly meetings happen every other week or once a month?
Conduct more ad hoc meetings
Can the purpose of a meeting be covered and addressed with a quick ad hoc meeting? In a typical day, I’ll have 3-6 quick ad hoc meetings to address issues and help teams move on to the actual work.
Use the right tool for the situation
Are there more efficient and practical tools to achieve the goal of the meeting? You’ve got a lot of tools to choose from including the phone, email, Slack, IM, collaboration tools, conversations, etc.
2. Reduce the length of meetings
Clear and focused agendas
Before a meeting, ensure someone has created and sent out a clear and focused agenda. The agenda should outline the purpose of the meeting, time frames for agenda topics, and the desired output of the meeting (e.g., decisions, plans, next steps, consensus). Furthermore, once the meeting begins, go over the agenda again and ask if there are any requested additions or questions. When you schedule a meeting, be clear what type of meeting it is and the expected outcomes. And, kickoff the meeting repeating the agenda and expected results. Does a decision need to be made? Does a problem have to be solved? Is information being shared? Is input expected from the bottom up?
Reduce the scheduled length of meetings
You can reduce many of those 1-hour meetings to 30 minutes or less. Just like work fills time, conversation fills the meeting time. Try time boxing meetings and see how much more productive you can be.
Keep on task. Tangents are the disease within meetings
All of a sudden, you find yourself 50 miles off course from the actual agenda of the meeting. When this happens, you have to acknowledge you’re off the agenda, and either bring the meeting back to the topic, time box the tangent discussion, or parking lot the tangent for future discussion. We’ve all heard the useful “let’s sideline that topic for another discussion and get back to the agenda.”
Some organizations only conduct stand up meetings, where everyone has to stand up the entire meeting. The theory is it keeps people focused, brief and on task.
Speedup the buildup
So much of meetings is a regurgitation of facts or context that are either already known by everyone or take too long in the delivery of by the presenter. To keep on task, remind people to be brief, that there are only a few minutes more for the agenda topic, or to wrap it up in the next minute.
Wrap it up
The most important part of a meeting is the outcome. Often, meetings end like a feather drifting in the wind. Don’t let this happen. Always make sure everyone is in agreement on next steps, the decisions made, or whatever the outcome of the meeting is. And, follow it up with email notes, so everyone is on the same page and understands the necessary follow-up.