Some Lifesaving Tips... For Death by Meetings

If you’re like me or pretty much anyone else in corporate America, you’ve suffered through endless hours of information overload, a rotation of long-winded blowhards in love with hearing themselves speak and major time wasting sessions...also known as "meetings".  At times you feel held captive for days, weeks and even months.  This meeting wheel just spins endlessly, makes you feel out of control and wonder when you’re actually supposed to do work?

Meetings, and time wasted in them, have been the butt of jokes for years.  But when you’re a CEO and you understand the collective cost of time wasted, there’s nothing funny about this loss of productivity and profits.  Unnecessary and ineffective meetings waste millions of dollars in organizations per year.  However, if you do a little upfront planning and add a dash of engagement, enforcement and fun, the result will be time well spent.

When used properly, meetings can be vastly productive. Bringing people together is important and beneficial.  Brainstorming, with the right team, is powerful.  Personal interaction drives collaboration and innovation which are vital for organizations to grow.  However, at most organizations, the constant, endless and unproductive meetings need to stop.   We’ve all sat in meetings that drone on forever.  They leave you feeling like the life has been sucked out of you. Effective meetings leave you energized and feeling that you've accomplished something.

For most people, this idea of pre-planning, truly sticking to an agenda, and adding some spice to the typical, boring meeting is new.  Most of us just show up, unprepared, with little idea why we are there.  This new concept encourages people come to the meeting on time and prepared to participate to quickly achieve the outcome.   It may take a little time and energy to get this to stick, but it’s worth it!

How can I make meetings suck less?

...And even make them effective and productive

Running an effective meeting requires more than sending out invites to meet at a particular time and place.   Effective meetings need pre and post-work, structure and order.  Without these elements they can go on forever and not accomplish a thing.

1.     Is this meeting necessary

Ask these 2 questions:

A.   Is there a clear objective for the meeting?
       Do you need a decision?  To solve a problem? To generate ideas?  Be clear on why you are taking everyone away from their work to join you.

B.   Is there a better alternative to a meeting to achieve the above outcomes?
       Could the objective be accomplished via email?  How about a one-on-one conversation?   Give this question some good thought before you create the meeting invite.

2.  Determine the objective, Set the agenda and Design pre-work

Once you decide that the meeting is necessary, the steps below will help you stay on track and achieve your objective in a time-sensitive manner.

A.   Design and share a clear agenda

  •  Clearly state the objective of the meeting and what you must accomplish during this tie.  To help you determine your objective, complete this sentence:
    •  At the close of the meeting, I want the group to ...

  • Identify all required participants

  • State who the facilitator is

  • Share what topic(s) will be covered, who is expected to present information and how much time will be spent on each topic

  • Share when/where/how long the meeting will take place (the shorter the better!)

B.   Set expectations (e.g. you should come prepared with a 2 minute update and a brief summary of outstanding issues as well as solution ideas)

C.   Distribute and seek input on the agenda from participants prior to the meeting so new topics don’t crop up and derail the primary objective

3.   Make it effective (I’m here. Don’t waste my time)

A.   Achieve your objective in the minimum amount of time required!!

B.   Keep it on track

  • Have a strong facilitator to stick to the agenda and “manage” talkative participants and “encourage” quiet ones.  Everyone here has an equal stake in the game (or they shouldn’t be here)
  • Start the meeting on time.  Try locking the conference room door 1 minute after the meeting begins.  You only have to do this once to get people to be on time.   Make sure the meeting ends on time, or better yet, early
  • Whatever can be done outside the meeting should be, including circulating reports beforehand and assigning smaller group meetings to discuss issues relevant to only certain people
  • At the end of each agenda item the facilitator should quickly summarize what was said and document ‘to do’s” with due dates and owners
  • Have someone competent taking minutes
  • Create a “parking lot” for items that require further discussion
  • Ban Smartphones
  • Use a Countdown Clock
    •  Marissa Mayer at Yahoo is known for projecting a digital clock on the screen in her meetings.  Jake Knapp, design partner at Google Ventures, is an advocate for using a large physical clock to count down the time remaining in a meeting. It makes it absolutely impossible to ignore.
  • Don’t Sit Down         
    •  Haven’t you heard that sitting is the new smoking? Not only is sitting too long    hazardous to our health, it leads to longer meetings. Sit-down meetings were 34  percent longer than stand-up meetings, but they produced no better decisions      than stand-up meetings as reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology
  • Go for a walk
  • Delegate the leadership of the meeting.  This helps to keep things interesting and encourages professional development.
  • Present meeting summary    At the close of the meeting, quickly summarize next steps and inform everyone that you will be sending out a meeting summary
  • Make it fun
    • If you want your colleagues to truly engage, don’t have this be a powerpoint snooze fest.  Make it entertaining – inject some fun, silliness, and movement into the meeting.  Not only will people be more engaged, but you’ll get better outcomes.

4.   Follow up

Finally, distribute minutes from the meeting within 24 hours with action items assigned and delivery dates.  This way everyone knows what they are on the hook for.

A few last thoughts...

We are all unique and each of us works most effectively at different times of the day.  It’s important to have blocks of time to work, not be in meetings, on calls or returning email all day. 

Organize your day into blocks where you set aside time for you to work, uninterrupted.   Many people are most productive in the morning.  This is a good time to work. So by having meetings then, that productive time to work and innovate is lost.  Many people crash about 3 so that may not be the best time to work, it may be better for meetings. 

Another idea I have seen work well is to pick one day to have NO meetings.  Nothing internal or external.  It’s all about work.  This promotes innovation and collaboration.

Its most important is to work within your organization’s culture to determine the best strategy to optimize meetings and increase productivity.   Trust me, once you get this going, your colleagues will thank you!