Meetings, Meetings, Meetings….

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings….

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If ever there was a topic to bring out the anger in anyone it is the subject of meetings. Particularly ‘internal’ meetings. I haven’t met anyone who likes them or doesn’t have hundreds of stories about the waste of time most of them are. So why on earth do we have so many of them? Why are we all complicit in this madness? How much time in your working day is dictated by “meetings”? Meetings for this, meetings for that, meetings for the other! It is time we put a stop to this and used some common sense.

Meetings for meetings’ sake can be the very definition of hell.

Jill: I think we need a meeting to discuss this.

Jack: You’re right. But we need to engage the others, so let’s organise a meeting with them all to introduce the concept of having a meeting to discuss this.

Jill: OK. But we might need a pre-meeting to establish how to sell the idea of the meeting, in the general meeting. Oh, and we’ll need an agenda.

Jack: Which agenda? The hidden agenda? The agenda for the pre-meeting, or for the meeting with everyone, or for the meeting to discuss this?

Jill: Discuss what?

Jack: I’ve forgotten.

Jill: Well, shall we meet anyway?

Jack: Yeah. That would be nice. A bit of a catch up.

At all costs, try not to have them. But if a meeting is unavoidable – make sure it actually achieves something of value in the optimum amount of time.

  • Make it as short and focused as possible.
  • Focus on the desired outcome or conclusion.
  • State the agenda beforehand.
  • Only invite those from whom you require either action or compromise – at that precise point in time.

Be able to answer these three questions before scheduling any meeting:

  • What’s the purpose of the meeting?
  • How do you expect each participant to prepare?
  • How do you expect each participant to participate?

It sounds simple doesn’t it? In reality it is!

Here are some ideas for making your meetings far more effective:

1. Just Don’t Meet
At all. Just in case you didn’t get it the first time! Purge yourself of meetings, and see how much time you save for other projects, such as sunbathing in the Caribbean whilst running your business. 

Do you actually need to meet? What alternatives are there? Could the same purpose be achieved through a memo, a phone call, an email or a report, instead? 

One of the keys to more effective meeting is to differentiate between the need for one-way information dissemination and two-way information sharing. 

Only meet when the sum of the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts: when you need people to brainstorm, bounce ideas off, discuss, and take collective responsibility. Otherwise, don’t meet. Do something else.

In staff hours, one person producing and emailing a report to 5 others is far more cost effective (in both time and money) than all 6 people travelling to and from, and attending for an hour or more, that ‘essential’ meeting.

And don’t feel that just because the meeting is by conference call or video conference that you are being efficient, either. It is still a meeting!

Ask yourself, “Is a meeting actually necessary?” and you’ll cut down on wasted meeting time. Moreover, your attendees will know that the meetings you do need them to attend are really necessary and will be a productive use of their time, too.

2. Reduce the Frequency
Never underestimate the power of reducing frequency. Will the world fall apart if a weekly meeting becomes a meeting every 10 days, or even fortnightly? Likewise, does a board meeting need to happen every month, when it can happen every 6 weeks or 2 months?

We get into the trap of regulating meeting intervals because our calendar happens to be the way it is. We base our meeting frequency upon how long it takes a planet to spin itself around, and how long it takes to orbit the sun. As for 52 weeks or 12 months – which mad person came up with that idea? It wasn’t a productivity specialist! Should we move to a slower spinning planet in a wider orbit, just to get more done?

How about optimisation? Deciding on the optimum time between meetings to deliver the best result? Call it revolutionary (and not in a planet-spinning sense) but you could probably cut the number of meetings down by half if you just ignored the restrictions of the calendar and stopped being predictable and unimaginative about your meeting intervals.

Think smarter and beyond the boundaries of convention.

3. Travel Makes the Problem Much Worse
If you, or other participants feel you ‘have to’  travel to meetings, then you really need help.

If you like going to new places, go on more holidays. If you like meeting new people, go on a date. If you think you get more work done while you travel, work in the local coffee shop. For god’s sake, don’t imagine that travelling to meetings adds any huge value to what you are doing. It scores an underlying own goal against your productivity; so if you are going to do it, make sure it really does have a strong purpose. If it doesn’t, at least be honest with yourself: “I am bored in the office and I like wasting time going to meetings in other places”. 

he internet has changed things. Video conferencing is now free and the average smartphone can even facilitate hosting a conference call. Why on earth would you fly halfway around the country – or the world – to take part in a meeting, when you can talk in a matter of minutes? If there are technical issues and a client wants to see you face-to-face, then send a student paid minimum wage on the plane, with an iPad. They could do with the work experience and you could do with the time!

In most cases, you can just scan the meeting agenda, raise your points in writing, not attend, and later just read the notes or listen (preferably at double speed!) to a recording of what went on.

If anyone complains, question who you are working with. If you value your time, and you work in an environment where a customer seems to require you to travel to meetings, change the environment one way or another. Make it financially worth their while to operate in a more efficient way or get rid of the customer altogether. It depends how much you want to get a life.

Yes, you may be depriving yourself and your staff of air miles and the odd night out in a new place on expenses – but what are you gaining? Think what you could do with your life and your business with all the extra spare time! Having to travel to meet people is so old school now…You don’t ‘have’ to do it to achieve what you want.

Look for the reason not to meet, rather than the reason to be there. At the very least, you can reduce the frequency of travelling to meet in person. Be there in person once a year if you have to – remember what they all smell like – and phone, email or – if you must – videoconference the rest of the time.

The important thing is to be aware of the productivity and cost consequence of what you  are doing, In most cases travel is just not necessary. Use your common sense!

4. Set Objectives for the Meeting
If you really do have a valuable purpose for having a meeting, set your objectives before you even invite anyone. One benefit of this is to help you plan the meeting. For example: By the end of the meeting I want to:

  • generate three ideas for generating sales
  • solve a design problem
  • find a new way to market

The more concrete your meeting objectives, the more focused your agenda will be.

A second important benefit of having specific objectives is that you have concrete measurements by which you can evaluate the meeting. 

Were you successful in achieving the objectives? Why, or why not? Is another meeting required? 

Set meeting objectives, evaluate your success in achieving them, and you can continuously improve your effective meeting processes.

4. Provide an Agenda
Provide all participants with an agenda before the meeting starts. Ideally, send it out with the meeting invitation itself. 

Your agenda needs to include a brief description of the purpose/s of the meeting: your objectives, a list of the topics to be covered and a list stating which participant will address each topic and for how long. This makes meetings active and participatory, indicating  that preparation is required and taking shared responsibility. 

Follow the agenda closely – and keep to time!

5. Assign Meeting Preparation
Engage your attendees. Give each participant something to prepare, and that meeting will take on a new significance to each group member.

Don’t spoonfeed information during the meeting. Get people to consume all the relevant information before the meeting – by reading notes and documents in preparation – and ask them to have ready their questions, challenges and solutions etc.

If there isn’t enough time to prepare – then halve the frequency of your meetings. It is better to have one well prepared meeting every two months than two monthly meetings that have not been prepared and thought about.

Ask each group member to think of one possible solution to the problem you wish to address, to get everyone thinking about the meeting topic before they even arrive. Start a sales meeting on a positive note, by asking all attendees to recall their biggest success since the last meeting, and ask one person to share their success with the group. For less formal meetings or brainstorming sessions, ask a ‘quiz question’ – get people to bring some research – maybe a statistic or fact related to the meeting topic, and share findings in the first few minutes of the meeting. Make it awkward for those who think ‘winging it’ is acceptable. Anyone who has not prepared should stand out. Other participants should be outstanding. 

Don’t waste time going through the same things at every meeting. Highlight what has changed, rather that what has happened. Manage by exception instead of going through every point in detail. A well prepared meeting should enable that.

Whatever you do, do not use meetings to ‘get up to speed’. That is a waste of everyone’s time.

6. Remove Distraction & Keep Focussed
Most importantly – when holding a meeting, remove any potential distractions and keep it focussed at all times. Ban all distractors such as mobile phones, Blackberries, iPads, biscuits, windows, sunshine, fresh air etc.

If it were up to me, I would make everyone put their tech items into a bowl in the middle of the table. (No, not like a Swingers party). Deprive them of their ‘fix’. At the very least, their withdrawal symptoms from their ‘addiction’ should agitate them enough to finish the meeting quickly.

Meetings should be 100% focussed, high energy, productive environments. If you are running one and have not created that energy, ask yourself what the point is, and consider that you probably need help or more practice on your technique.

If you notice that someone is not paying attention, it is probably for one of the following reasons:

  • The speaker is dull (horrifyingly, that could be you!)
  • They should not be there
  • They have not prepared
  • The meeting is losing its purpose or is too slow
  • They are tired, unwell and/or hungover. In which case, a small electric shock or thrown projectile should get them through to the end, with focus.

At any point during a meeting, if more than one person is not fully focussed, there is something wrong with your meeting. Do not accept distraction or lack of focus in any form. It is the thin end of the wedge…The thick edge of that wedge is spending a significant proportion of your life in more meetings.

7. Assign Action Items
During the meeting, don’t finish any discussion point without deciding what action to take on it. Listen for key comments that flag up potential actions, and don’t let them pass by without addressing them. Statements such as these:

  • We should really… 
  • That’s a matter for such and such… 
  • I wonder if we could…? 

are examples of comments that should be addressed there and then by designating an action. They should trigger action items for participants to:

  • get a task done after the meeting, 
  • issue an instruction to someone not at the meeting,
  • start a new project or push a project forward,
  • actually make a decision there and then

Don’t let anyone get away with it! Assigning tasks and projects as they arise during the meeting means that your follow-through will be complete. 

If it’s valid discussion – demand an action! If a discussion does not result in an action – why are you discussing it?

Jack: Did you see CSI last night? The way they caught that killer…

Jill: What is the action on that?

Jack: Action? Erm..

Be the annoying bugger who says, ‘What is the action?’ at the end of every discussion point, and ‘Who will action that?’ 

The workshy will invite you to far fewer meetings, for fear of actually having to do something. What could be a better win-win than that?!

8. Keep on Track
Address off-topic statements immediately – it allows you to keep the meeting on track. Suggest action to examine such an issue outside the current meeting, where relevant, and show participants that you value their input as well as their time during the meeting.

It is too easy to get distracted by small details or problems that get raised in meetings.

If you haven’t prepared for an item beforehand, raising and discussing it during the meeting will be an inefficient approach, in most cases.

Unless it is really important to the overall of objectives of the meeting (or a matter of life and death), don’t discuss it. Defer it until the next meeting, if it seems appropriate. By the next meeting, something that could have taken up valuable time now, might have just gone away.

Or refer the matter to an alternative forum: ‘Discuss it with me after the meeting’, ‘send me an email’, or ‘Talk to the hand…’ 

8. Examine Your Meeting Process
Assign the last few minutes of every meeting to evaluating the meeting process. Review, using the following questions: 

  • What worked well in this meeting?
  • What can we do to improve our next meeting?
  • How can we reduce the frequency of these meetings?
  • How do we prevent the need to have this meeting?

Every participant should briefly provide an answer to these questions.

Don’t leave the meeting without assessing what took place and making a plan to improve the next meeting! Always work to remove the need to have the meeting, or reduce its frequency.

Taking your Meetings to a New Level

Think about more extreme measures for your meetings. 

What would happen if no meeting was to take longer than 30 minutes – ever? Would attendees feel inhibited – or motivated – by having a countdown stopwatch projected onto a wall behind them?

How can you benefit from creating a touch of discomfort and  an increase in the pressured environment? Learn from fast-food environments – paint the walls red and yellow, make the seats hard plastic, don’t offer biscuits or water, turn the aircon down to freezing and play awful music…

Faster decisions? Less waste? More focus? Dare you do it? Great companies like Google do it.

How would people feel if they had to stand up for the duration of the meeting? Would they be quicker? Research has shown that meeting times are cut down by as much as 50% when using this simple technique. Standing up oxygenates the brain, too, so you’re guaranteed a livelier response. And it’s more obvious if people fall asleep. Besides, I believe human beings were designed to stand, rather than sit in thousand pound supportive chairs ergonomically designed by occupational therapists and promoted by the health and safety mob.

By implementing any of these ideas, you are taking your meetings to the next level of efficiency. Every minute you save is a minute of your life back.

Be as creative as you like, but there is much to be gained by getting rid of meetings wherever you can, and vastly improving how the remaining necessary and essential meetings work.

When in doubt, don’t meet.

Further Reading:

The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris (Amazon Link UK, US)

Getting Things Done by David Allen (Amazon Link UK, US)

Other Links:
Free Video Conferencing – Google Hangouts (Link)

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at getintouch@marcwinn.com.

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  1. Marguerite Talmage says

    Music to my ears. I’d just add make sure everyone understands what their action points are – and that they get them done.

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