Meetings Are for People Who Aren’t Too Busy

I survived another meeting

An old friend sent me a picture the other day of this blue ribbon that says, “I survived another meeting that should have been an email.” He obviously remembers how I feel about meetings.

Turns out you can actually buy the ribbons here, and I know a lot of bosses who should pass them out.

You leaders have got to get a handle on the endless parade of time-wasting, morale-draining meetings you expect your people to sit through!

Routine, regularly scheduled meetings – the ones that are on your calendar until the end of time – are the worst! They typically involve endless droning around a table about activities that only one or two people in the room care about. When the boss at the head of the table tolerates such time wasting, the expectation is that everyone has to say something, and we’ve all experienced the guy who’s a little too fond of his own voice.

Several years ago, everyone in my directorate went to a weekly staff meeting like the one I described above. I used to tuck a couple of Sudokus in my notebook to make it look like I was taking notes (I know, not setting a good example). One week, I asked the director if I could skip the meeting if I was too busy. He said, “Sure.” I never went again.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

When I was talking the other day with a senior government leader about making meetings more productive, I got some pushback on my value judgement. He said, “It’s the only time we all get together. How else will everyone find out what the others are working on?” I remember one time a Deputy Under Secretary actually saying, “The daily meeting’s not for you; it’s for me to find out what everyone’s doing.”

Trust me, there are far better ways to connect the people who need information with the people who have information. If you’re the boss and doubt what I’m saying, give this to your people and ask for their thoughts.

Productive meetings don’t happen by accident. If you want to see a dramatic improvement in Return On Time Spent In Meetings (ROTSIM – a new metric?), try these proven steps:

Put someone (preferably someone who values efficient use of time) in charge of the agenda. Meetings without agendas usually end up being free-for-alls. If you absolutely have to have a routine meeting to update the boss, make it clear in advance that no one brings more than two or three of their most critical issues that a majority of people around the table really need to know about. Any issues that only the boss and the person speaking care about should be handled one-on-one or in an email.

Get rid of as many routine meetings as you can. I was once part of an organization (for a very short period of time) who actually tracked the number of meetings attended as a performance metric. Try only having meetings when there is something to decide. Have clear objectives, not open-ended ones like “Discuss employee engagement.” Send pre-work to the attendees so they can come to the table as an informed participants, not as sponges.

No marathon meetings! People lose focus and creativity when you hold them hostage for more than an hour or two, especially after lunch. If need be, break the agenda in half and have two shorter meetings appropriately spaced.

Finally, make sure someone’s keeping track of decisions and deferred issues. Make it a written record and include who is responsible for each along with a deadline. It can be part of the pre-work if you need a subsequent session.

What about the time you spend around the conference room table? Want to reduce it and make it more productive?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.

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