„Ah, I love having a day full of meetings!“… said probably no one ever. Meetings are perhaps the greatest love-hate relationship since Tom and Jerry. The average middle manager spends around 35% of her time in meetings, and the trend is only increasing. That’s a full 1.75 days of a work week, or 80 work days in a year, or 640 hours. You get the idea! It’s a lot and that’s basically some big chunk of money being spent there. Clearly, when so much time is allocated to meetings then it must be and extremely productive use of time, right? You guessed it already, haven’t you?! I am afraid, it’s not. According to an HBR article Stop the Meeting Madness “only 17% [of senior executives] reported that their meetings are generally productive uses of group and individual time“.
Why do we need to improve meetings
Steven G. Rogelberg writes in his book The Surprising Science of Meetings, that meetings “could […] actually be one of the largest unidentified line items in an organizational budget“.
“I can say with confidence that there is no other single investment of this magnitude that an organization makes that is treated in such a cavalier manner.“
Steven G. Rogelberg
That means we are spending countless of hours in meetings where only a small number of them seems to be productive.
When I started my career my first manager was barely at his desk. If I wanted to speak to him for only a few minutes I had to book this time in his calendar. His agenda looked like one of those mosaic floors. There were meetings not only adjacent to others but also double and sometimes triple booked. In fact, most of the middle and senior managers in this organization worked this way. There even was a joke people made:
‘Hey, are you working today?‘
‘No, I am in meetings‘.
Meetings are the killer of productivity
Why there are so many meetings
One reason is it takes only a few clicks to schedule a meeting. It also does not help that the default meeting time for most office softwares is 60 minutes (that’s almost 10% of most people’s work day). If you have heard of Parkinson’s Law you know that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
According to Rogelberg’s research it also has to do with a change of values in organizations and society. As organizations are acting less directive, employee inclusion and empowerment result in an increasing amount of time spent in meetings. After all, we want to include all stakeholders in the decision making process. As this is admirable – as this is often the case when things go unchecked – they tend to go out of hand. Clearly, the prime concern should be to get the work done. If a meeting offers no support on it and even stands between you and productivity then its existence should be questioned.
Banning meetings is not the solution
If they are so bad, why not ban meetings all together?! Unfortunately, it’s not all black and white either. The bring inclusion in decision making, give unity and are an effective means to distribute informational. But meetings are nothing but a tool (out of many) that are supposed to follow – or should follow – a specific purpose. And as we will see further below it should not (only) be the purpose of the meeting leader but all attendees. Otherwise other more effective means should be considered.
A 6 Step guide to make meetings more effective
As an attendee there are unfortunately not many things you can do to improve a meeting. You could engage other participants or demand a clearer structure, but that’s basically all you can do. However, you decide how you lead your own meetings. And while having an agenda is probably a good start, it’s by far not the solution at all.
Step 1: Prepare your meeting and have a clear purpose
Instead of starting with preparing an agenda, just try to answer a few questions:
- What’s the purpose of your meeting?
- What do you want to achieve?
- When would you and your attendees consider the meeting to be successful?
- What input is required to make it successful?
- How are you going to make sure you achieve what you’ve planned?
- What could go wrong (e.g. key people not showing up, IT-problems, lack of engagement, information missing) and how will you prepare for it?
Step 2: Honor their time
Now that you have a clear purpose and made a plan you know whom to invite. But when you are calling for a meeting you are asking your attendees to donate the most valuable thing they have: Their time.
- Decide who really needs to be involved and who can be kept in the loop
- Instead of extending the attendee list for political reasons inform stakeholders that the meeting is about to take place
- Ask them for their input beforehand and offer to distribute the minutes of meeting to them
By this you are not only valuing their input but are also honoring their time. You’ll be surprised how many will thank you for approaching them and are ok from just being informed.
Step 3: Be the host
- Be a host: make your attendees feel welcome. By this you’re valuing their attendance and their time
- facilitate actively towards the goal of the meeting
- Be a steward: take ownership for the outcome of the meeting but also delegate items to your attendees – therefore you’re promoting engagement
- Engage people and encourage them to actively participate. Also make sure to politely call out if someone is talking too long or is engaging in inattentive or distractive behavior (e.g. tapping on the phone or laptop)
- Avoid HIPPOs (highest-paid person opinion) and Groupthink in decision making meetings (Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that we have discussed in a previous blog post on decision-making).
- Use survey apps or silent individual thinking time to eliminate Groupthink
- Find the most optimal solution in decision making with Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Heads. It is an effective tool in order to make effective use in solution driven of how the human brain works. It is adapted by various innovative companies worldwide (our dear friend to our blog Angela Heise is an expert offers coaching how to put on your six thinking heads)
Step 4: Why not experiment a bit?
You might have made the experience that you had really good ideas and conversations durning a walk. So why not taking advantage of it and having a meeting while walking. It’s certainly good for the health but only ideal for a few (two or three) attendees. Also, it should not become a hike. Find some useful tips here.
Find more ideas for creative meeting formats here.
Step 5: Ask for feedback
Feedback is the key ingredient to any form of improvement. Without feedback you will be left in the dark. Rogelberg mentions in his book and also in the article HBR article Why Your Meetings Stink – and What to do About it “[…] that the attendees who are the most active are the ones who feel that meetings are the most effective and satisfying. And who typically talks the most? The leader.”
- How productive was the meeting?
- How comfortable have you been to share your opinion?
- How can we make our meeting more effective?
Step 6: Lead by example
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