A Five Minute Read
Scheduling a meeting can be an awful lot like drunk-dialing an ex: We know we probably shouldn’t do it, there is little chance anything good will come out of it, yet without really thinking it through we are quickly looking for an empty room. A quick Google search of “time wasted in meetings” returns studies showing anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of managers (actually, one claimed 90 percent) feel that their time is wasted in meetings.
Nevertheless, there are times when getting “the group” together is necessary. Rest assured, there are things you can do – both individually and as an organization – to make sure that meeting time is time well-spent.
Meeting improvement literature focuses on making them more “efficient”, but not necessarily effective. In the days of Total Quality Management, we were held to pre-ordained times per agenda item– not a fundamentally bad idea, but when time expired, the conversation moved on, regardless of resolution. This led to “offline” meetings, the meeting-after-the-meeting, or the topic becoming an agenda annuity. (A topic resolved quickly also demonstrated poor planning: Why slot an item for ten minutes if the issue could be resolved in seven?)
The fact is, being more efficient in scheduling and running meetings helps make them more effective. Without being as extreme as our old Quality Circles, here are some ground rules that will go a long way toward improving your meetings.
Begin on Time.
This may seem like a no-brainer. Theater curtains rise on Broadway five minutes late, but your meetings should start when scheduled. Presume three meetings a day, each starting five minutes late. That is over an hour of wasted time each week. Over the course of a year, that adds up to about a week-and-a-half that could have been spent on “real” work – or vacation.
Do not recap for people who are late. That only encourages future tardiness, and punishes those who were punctual.
End on Time.
That is just respectful. It may involve planning and skill to accomplish what is needed in the time frame; this is the price of calling the meeting.
Do NOT Schedule Meetings for the ‘Full’ Hour.
Yes, Outlook defaults to an hour. When meetings are scheduled to begin and end at the top of the hour, the previous two rules are impossible to meet. One former client instituted financial penalties for those who were late– which prompted them to pop in, drop their planners, shout “I’m here” and then disappear to get coffee, hit the restroom, etc. The ultimate solution was to limit meetings to 45 minutes, starting at five past.
Most high school and college classes are 50 minutes long. Either that is actually the optimal time for a brain to focus on a topic, or we have conditioned ourselves to get restless at 51 minutes; either way, set the norm for 50 minute meetings. There will always be exceptions, but they should remain exceptions.
The science is in, and “multi-tasking” is a myth. People reading emails, prepping PowerPoints, or filling their Amazon carts are not paying attention to the meeting. It is as if they are not even there.
So, they should not be there.
(Multi-tasking is usually pointed out as a reason why meetings are ineffective; while that is true, I believe it is more of a symptom that the meeting has been poorly planned and/or executed, resulting in participants’ lack of engagement.)
Frequent pushback on this rule is, “I have so many meetings, the only time I can get something done is in this meeting.” Attending meetings is a choice, as is responding to email. Make a choice, and commit.
One easy solution is to establish the rule of “closed laptops”; increasingly, though, people attempt to take notes on their laptops (also a waste, according to Harvard). My client established a ground rule of everyone turning off wireless connectivity on their devices; it actually became a fun (if silly-looking) ritual at the start of each meeting (which began on time, of course).
Make the Thinking Visible.
This was sacred at my previous firm, and it never failed to improve discussions. It is not enough to distribute minutes. Meetings become far more effective when the ongoing dialogue is captured and shared “live”. Keeping track of the conversation this way serves multiple purposes:
- Everyone hears things the same way. The act of writing down “interprets” the conversation and gives the speaker a chance to confirm or clarify. Minimizes “oh, that’s not what I heard” and “I don’t think that’s what I said” conversations later.
- People stop talking in circles. Once something is said or decided, it is documented for all to see. No need to revisit.
- Progress is captured. And, just as it helps prevent the conversation from back-sliding, it becomes obvious when someone jumps to conclusions.
- Participants become more energetic. Once someone jumps up and “grabs the pen”, others tend to follow suit – and stay engaged and focused on the front of the room.
Whiteboards are great for this – and participants can take a picture afterwards for their notes. Old-fashioned flipcharts are better still; we have a tendency to erase whiteboards as we brainstorm, and sometimes we want to have previous iterations of an idea. Crossing out and rewriting is fine – thinking is supposed to be messy. Projecting a laptop can work; one risk is becoming fixated on the process rather than the content (spelling errors, formatting challenges, etc.). Still, it is better than nothing.
Even if you can’t mandate these five rules across your organization, you can at least establish them for you and your reports.
There is no doubt that this takes work – ending on time, and in less than an hour, requires solid planning. Outlook defaults to 30 minute meetings at the top and bottom of every hour, so breaking that habit takes effort. That effort pays off – setting clear expectations helps everyone manage themselves better. Giving everyone time to hit their lockers between meetings improves focus during the meeting; forcing the decision between an email and the budget review improves communication on both fronts.
Ultimately, if making meetings a little more difficult means people call fewer of them, that is probably not a bad outcome.