Fixing Meeting Management

Fixing Meeting Management

Time is money. And most of the money squandered in organizations today is a consequence of too many unproductive and unnecessary meetings. Of the 23 hours, on average, that executives spend in meetings each week, minimally a third they suggest deserve that criticism. Attendees agree – not surprisingly, 90% of them say they daydream in meetings and 73% use the time to do other work.

In too many businesses today, there’s an escalating proclivity to spend an inordinate amount of time on inconsequential routine matters while glossing over more meaningful concerns. Parkinson’s Law of Triviality postulates that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the larger scheme of things. Major, complex and troubling strategic issues usually get the least discussion while minor or less crucial matters get the most attention. This is so because less critical issues are easier to understand and require minimal responsibility to act on.

The simpler a challenge, the more people will have an opinion on it. When the issue is beyond our domain of competence or authority, we’re usually quite unlikely to offer or defend a position. Yet we still believe we should be in the room when it’s debated. When the matter at hand is not well understood, regardless of its veracity, we feel compelled to offer our point of view lest we appear misinformed or stupid. Hence, in most meetings, a lot of people are talking about things they know little about. And this is why there are too many unneeded people present.

It’s estimated that 23% of the average work week for rank-and-file employees is spent in meetings that accomplish little. It gets worse the higher one goes – a survey of how CEOs “actually spend their time” published in The Harvard Business Review two years ago revealed that 72% of their time was spent in meetings (and another 20% or so on emails). Which leaves little time for dealing with more important pursuits, like thinking. A client recently told me 30% of his managers’ time was “wasted” in non-billable meetings that had nothing to do with improving workplace practices, attending to deteriorating quality issues or financial mismanagement concerns. The meeting time was evidentiary; the outcomes were not.

Experiment with the notion of having fewer meetings by reducing the number by one-third. A survey in the Journal of Business Research of 76 companies that purposely reduced meetings over the course of 14 months disclosed some startling outcomes – employee productivity was 71% higher when meetings were reduced by 40%. Because they had more time to do what they were supposed to be doing. Those affected felt more empowered and autonomous which increased their satisfaction by 52%. Removing 60% of meetings increased cooperation by 55% and reduced the risk of stress by 57%. When meetings declined by 80%, employee perceptions they were being micro-managed lessened by 74% and they felt more valued, trusted and engaged (by 44%).

Meetings without an explicit, intelligible and measurable purpose are an inefficient use of time. When you feel a meeting is required, consider these questions: What specifically is my objective? (Avoid generalizations like “exploring” or “addressing” an issue.) Is a meeting really necessary or are there alternatives? Next, consider what noteworthy problems are to be resolved. Translate the answers into an outcome-oriented agenda circulated two days in advance with suggested timelines for each item. Where needed, provide single-page backgrounders that succinctly define the issue and provide an update on relevant prior decisions, options/alternatives and sources of pertinent information. All resource documents should be distilled to the essentials in jargon-free bullet points. A proper agenda contains action items, not “discussion points.”

Good meeting managers ensure the right people are always at the table. Determine who needs to be in the room to reach the outcomes sought and who doesn’t. The right ones are those with relevant knowledge, experience and insight on the matters at hand who are willing and able to express them openly and respectfully. Having fewer cooks in the kitchen is a recipe that goes beyond good meal preparation. The optimal meeting size (I suggest) is seven people.

Be directive on how decisions will be made but not on the content of discussions. Establish a minimum number of meeting dos and don’ts, ensure every attendee understands them and enforce compliance. Insist that all speakers get to the point they want to make – what they want to see done and the primary reason(s) why. Set a time limit on monologues. Do not tolerate social loafing: everyone participates and spectators are prohibited. Dismiss the silent, unnecessary or unresponsive attendees (who are likely unprepared anyway) or use peel-off agendas – people can leave after their issue has been addressed. Without exception, end at the designated time indicated on the agenda.

Every meeting has a cost, which ought to be an investment in your business. So monetize the actual cost of your meetings (you can get apps that will do this). Bain & Company recently discovered that weekly meetings of mid-level managers was costing one of its clients $15M a year! Perhaps the dumbest words ever uttered at the start of a meeting are “We’re going to wait five more minutes for everyone to join.” Set a time when late arrivers, regardless of who they are or what their reason may be, are banned (10 minutes is sufficient, five is better). Never reward tardiness by reviewing what they might have missed. You may occasionally have to resort to extreme measures, such as locking the door ten minutes after the meeting starts. You will only have to do this once – it’s unlikely anyone will arrive late again.

Never repeat information that has already been distributed to the attendees. When you do that, you’re teaching them they don’t have to come prepared. Simply ask if there are questions about the backgrounder, then tell them to stick to the questions provided. If tangential issues enter into the conversation, note them for appropriate research or follow-up. Focus on the problems and priorities requiring resolution, not on socializing – no beverages, doughnuts or electronic devices.

Avoid interrupting speakers or finishing their sentences. Stop them only if they’re rambling or repeating points already made. To keep them on point, ask politely, “What do you propose we do?” When they finish, ask helpful, guiding strategic questions related to execution like: “What resources do you need to take this to the next level?” End the topic by summarizing clear next steps, such as who’s to do what and when. Send the action steps to the attendees within two days – indicate what will be done, who is responsible for doing it and when the task must be completed.

Lousy meeting management is endemic. Those who run them consistently rate their effectiveness “very favourably” and more positively than do attendees: 79% say their meetings are “productive” while 56% say those run by others are not. This is the “I’m not the problem” syndrome. So, from time to time, audit your effectiveness as a meeting manager. Use a Likert scale to quantify the feedback on questions like: Were our objectives clearly communicated? Were the action items understood? Were the right people invited? Were they fully prepared? Lastly, but most importantly, ask these two open-ended questions: What could have been done better? And how can we shorten future meetings?