The late management guru Peter Drucker wrote of meetings, “Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”
Yet, we are wired to want a meeting whenever it is possible to have one. Perhaps it is because we want to be a ‘team player’ in the organization and want other team members to work with us. Perhaps it is because our expertise on the issue to be discussed is minimal and we want to get insights and ideas from others. Perhaps it is because we want to share the responsibility for failure (and maybe success) if the issue discussed in the meeting turns out to be bad for the enterprise.
I think Drucker was making the point that meetings should not be the first action we take but rather we should see meetings as a necessary condition to accomplish results.
“Our meetings are terrible.”
“They waste time.”
“Very little gets accomplished.”
“Our gatherings usually results in a call for more meetings.”
Those are statements I have heard from c-suite executives whenever I would enter an organization as a new CEO or as a consultant asked to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of an enterprise.
The great majority of meetings are terrible. In-person meetings are bad enough. But technology has allowed us to conduct even worse meetings using teleconferencing, Face time, and ‘Go to Meeting’ software so we can meet at anytime, anywhere, around the globe.
Of course, it is not the people attending the meetings or the software employed to connect us that makes the meeting bad. It is the lack of preparation and seriousness we give to the meeting that makes it inefficient and too often painful.
Here are 10 tips I have discovered to make meetings effective and keep them efficient. Implement one or all; your meetings will be infinitely better as a result.
1. Keep meetings to a specific date and time
Time is money. Setting a meeting for a regular date and time allows all the participants to set aside time on their calendars to attend. It eliminates the need for dozens of emails to find out what time works for everyone. Meetings should last no more than ninety minutes at the maximum but generally a sixty-minute meeting works best. Experience has demonstrated that the level of meeting engagement declines as time drags on. A regular schedule and a specific amount of time will keep the team enthusiastic about attending and the discussion lively and productive.
2. Allow the participants to preview agenda items
If you do not have the time to construct a thoughtful agenda and distribute to the participants before the meeting, you shouldn’t have the meeting. Period. The goal of the meeting should be to have the most informed discussion among the participants. That only happens when everyone knows what will be discussed. Slapping an agenda together minutes before the meeting and making copies immediately before it starts is a sign of an unnecessary meeting and a waste of time for those involved. Team decision-making can only be effective if the participants have time to really think about the items being discussed.
3. Assign specific items to specific people
I don’t know about you, but 90% of meetings I have attended have no individual assigned to a specific item. Therefore, there is no accountability for discussion and, more importantly, for post- meeting action. Attendance and participation skyrockets when participants know they are being held accountable.
4. Estimate time for each item discussion and post it on the agenda
Have the person responsible for the specific agenda item and/or the meeting overall to assign a time value to each topic and place the time next to the item. For example, HR Benefits Update (8 minutes). Just having the time listed keeps the presenter and the discussion focused. Including the time allotted for an issue minimizes what generally happens in meeting discussions – the conversation goes on and on, drifts into topics tangential to the agenda item and drives productive team members nuts.
5. Enact a ‘no electronics on’ rule during the meeting policy
Technology is everywhere. But it distracts, especially in meetings. As CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, I imposed a “no electronics rule” on meetings. I thought it was disrespectful and counterproductive (team members would pay attention to their email and not to the discussion). My preference is for everyone to leave their gadget in their office or at their desk. Face it, the probability of something really “big” happening during the meeting is close to zero. Everyone can wait sixty or ninety minutes to see a Instagram picture, read a joke on email, re-tweet a Twitter comment or find out where your significant other wants to go after work for dinner. Importantly, if you are the leading the meeting, leave your smart phone at your desk as well.
6. Penalize those individuals who show up late
Starting a meeting late because team members causally show up wastes economic resources and undermines respect for team members. If you start a meeting fifteen minutes late for fifty-two weeks a year for ten team members, you have lost 130 working hours annually. You can calculate the labor cost by just multiplying that number by your hourly salary to get an idea of the cost to the enterprise. Moreover, starting late fosters a culture of disrespect. Other people’s time is valuable. Respect them by showing up on time. One major business organization fines individuals for showing up late (they collect a late fee which is then donated to a charity). Another just locks the door and team members are left out of the meeting and face the embarrassment of not being included. You can find lots of ways and successful examples to demonstrate that ‘time is money’ and that the team needs to show up on time. You will be surprised how the internal will generally be more respectful of others after you have initiated this tip.
7. Minimize reports of past actions
Your meetings should be focused on the future. Keep “reports” of past actions to a minimum – if you allow them at all. Yes, you want to recognize individuals who have succeeded but your meetings should be about the future. Generally, too much time is spent on reviewing the past.
8. Engage in a real conversation
The main character in the TV and movie comedy, Get Smart, would always insist on “the cone of silence” – two transparent plastic hemispheres that are electrically lowered on the heads of the two main characters as a security protocol. It usually malfunctioned in the comedy. The point here is that you need to create and sustain an environment where team members in a meeting can tell the truth and not be discouraged from providing their honest opinion. Meetings are only effective when individuals provide their honest reaction and the discussion is based on reality. Great enterprises usually begin to fail when the team does not provide realistic, straightforward, brutally honest feedback. Sometimes this is hard for the leader to take. But that is why you are paid to be the leader.
9. Rotate subordinates into each meeting so the perception of “secrecy” is eliminated
Junior associates spend a lot of time at the ‘water cooler” or at the local Starbucks talking about all the “secret” discussions going in at meeting they were not invited to attend. At the NAB, we regularly invited junior staff to ‘sit-in’ to observe meetings. Guess what? All the side discussions disappeared and everyone felt more engaged in the association. This improved morale and ensured the staff doing the work could have a better understanding of how the enterprise was progressing.
10. Resist the temptation to end discussions with the phrase, “let’s have another meeting” whenever possible
If your discussion around an agenda item ends with the phrase, “we need to schedule another meeting,” you may have to rethink how you are approaching decisions. Yes, difficult issues may need more than one meeting. But if the organization’s meetings end with a “we have to have more meetings,” you have operational issues which need addressing. Successful, savvy organizations do not consume themselves in meetings. I know you know what I mean. Keep meetings to a minimum. As Drucker rightly pointed out, if you are meeting, you are not working.
Remember, meetings consume resources – there is a cost to a meeting. They must demonstrate a return on investment – staff time, preparation, intellectual capital used during discussion, execution strategies). A successful meeting must generate organizational actions that move the enterprise toward success of its mission or strategic goals.
If your meetings cannot increase effectiveness and efficiency of the organization, it would be better just not to have them at all. They will not be missed.
David Rehr is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
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