A Five Minute Read
I worked with a client whose managers actually configured their Outlook to automatically accept meeting invitations, letting their chirping iPhones lead them from conference room to conference room. Subsequently, they had no idea what was on their calendars, let alone what was important and what should be skipped.
(No surprise, this was an unproductive engagement. Forget “The Room Where It Happens”: They had rooms, not much happening.)
Meetings are a time-vacuum; like a dog tricked into the car for a ride to the vet, once we find ourselves in a useless meeting, we are trapped.
Time is a zero-sum game, and hours spent in someone else’s conference is, by nature, hours spent away from our work (multitasking to be discussed another time). Whether poorly planned, poorly executed, or just not aligned with our personal priorities, unproductive meetings need to be identified in advance and avoided.
In this post, I wrote about pruning your calendar for selfish reasons, but we still need tactics to determine which ones will be a valuable use of our time. The idea here is to identify which meetings are personally productive – either our gain or our contribution makes it worthwhile – not to determine whether or not the meeting has a right to exist.
First, Know the Purpose and Potential Impact
There is no getting around the fact that some meetings are more important than others; for every discussion to create the federal banking system, there are five discussions on whether or not user testing can start on the 17th. The first thing to know is what type of meeting is being held:
- Is this simply to share information?
- Is the idea for the group to synthesize and give context to information?
- Is this meeting, in fact, to come to a decision?
If the meeting is to share information – nothing more – ask: What other ways exist to get or give that same information?
If the meeting is consultative in nature – that is, the group is to “synthesize” or “give context” to information, ask: What role will I play in this?
If a decision is being made in that meeting, you have another decision to make first: Whether or not to attend that meeting. A key factor that should influence that decision is the honest assessment of how important that outcome will be to you and your goals. In the big picture, how much does it really matter if you are part of the decision? How much will the solution affect your work? Your priorities? We all like to have influence, but if the upshot has limited personal impact – or if others can achieve the same results – let them spend their time on it.
This is not to minimize the decision being made; it could, in fact, be “mission-critical” to the organization. If whatever solution comes out of it, though, is equally acceptable to you, spend your time on your own work.
A fourth type of meeting is a training or skill-building session; obviously, the decision to attend is between you and your manager.
Know Your Role
When deciding whether to attend, consider your likely role. In any organization colleagues rely on each other, so the calculus should not be limited to “What do I get out of this meeting?” but also “What will others get from my participation?” Is the organizational benefit of your attendance greater than your personal cost? Questions to consider include:
- What knowledge or experience do I bring to the room?
- What specific information is required, that I alone can provide?
- What perspective will be missed if I do not personally contribute to the discussion?
- Is attending the best way to deliver any of the above? What alternatives may exist?
Examine Alternate ‘Delivery Methods’
Decide if a personal appearance is the way to provide any of the above. For instance, if your role is to provide feedback from the latest survey, or present quarterly variance in COGS, does it make sense for you to put in the meeting- and travel-time? What documents or analysis can you provide in advance, to the chair or to the entire group? Can you be available by phone if needed to explain one picayune detail?
Know Where Conflict Lurks
When making decisions, there are two separate and distinct processes to work through – agreeing on what needs to be accomplished, and which options best achieve that. (Frustration often sets in when those are worked in the wrong order).
If the group is reviewing necessary results and objectives, consider:
- What goals or constraints will they entertain that conflict with my strategic goals and objectives?
- How can I dissuade the group from pursuing those conflicts?
- What do I need to learn from the group that will help me resolve the conflict and/or see how everything fits together?
If the group is selecting among different possibilities, think about:
- Are there solutions that only I can contribute?
- What information or expertise do I have that shows why one option may be better than another?
- What risks do I have unique insight into?
If those questions do not provoke robust answers on your part, skip the meeting.
In order to make an informed decision about attending, you need to know what is supposed to happen in The Room Where It Happens. Every article on running more effective meetings mandates distributing agendas and/or objectives in advance. If you receive an invitation that does not include either, you are lacking the information you need..
Unless this is clearly a command performance reply, “Please tell me more. What will we discuss and what do we hope to accomplish? What are my expected contributions to the outcome?” If you do not receive answers, do not go. (Edit and adjust based on the politics of your situation.)
If you are frustrated with your meetings, it could be because they are not results-based; perhaps they feature conversations that go round-and-round, adjourned not when something is accomplished, but when the next group needs the room. Every organization is different, to be sure, but I have never met anyone who was promoted, or received a raise because she attended more meetings than anyone else. Freeing our calendars allows us to focus on getting “real” work done.
Poorly run (or poorly planned) meetings may never go away, but you should never go to them. Likewise, an honest assessment of how you will impact the meeting, how it will impact you, and how important that is, should help you reduce the number of invitations you accept. Advance forethought saves wasted time later. Understand the role and purpose of the meeting, and your contribution to it, to judiciously prune your schedule.