Stop unproductive and costly meetings!
“Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organization, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism.”
Patrick Lencioni, American author
Why have meetings?
For decades management has struggled to make meetings more effective. Largely to no avail. They are still almost universally perceived as frustrating and unproductive and ranked among the top time wasters along with e-mail, social media and internet surfing.
It is not unusual for managers to run from meeting to meeting all week long. Employees too feel the crushing weight of meetings. The complaint uttered by just about everyone: When do we get to do our own work?
Given the burden and the cost of meetings, it is worthwhile to understand what causes their ineffectiveness, as well as to explore strategies and methods to improve their usefulness.
Why Meetings Fail
Surveys show that there are many reasons why meetings are unproductive (1; 2) :
–No clearly stated purpose or objectives, too many participants.
–Poor leadership: lack of planning and preparation before the meeting; insufficient structure, guidance and interactions during the meeting and no actions following the meeting.
–Meetings are too frequent and too long: no time to prepare for them, participants are stressed and feel they are wasting their time.
–Attendees not focused on the meeting agenda; engaged in other activities: checking messages (3), surfing, daydreaming, sleeping…
“A meeting is an event at which minutes are kept and hours are lost.”
The Staggering Costs of Meetings
Statistics are accumulating regarding the huge costs of meetings (1; 2; 4):
–Meetings waste money: In the U.S., more than 37 billion dollars a year are spent on unproductive meetings.
–They waste time: 25 million meetings are held each year in the U.S.
–Upper management spend 50% of their time in meetings; middle management 35%.
–15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings, a percentage that has increased every year since 2008.
–Half of the meetings are judged to be unproductive.
–Executives consider more than 67% of meetings to be failures.
–In France a study estimated that managers spend 16 years of a 40-year career in meetings (4).
Indirect costs of meetings include absence from clients, managers who are in management meetings, are not available for supervision and consultations with their own team…
How can meetings be improved?
“Love them or hate them, meetings are a big part of our work lives. They have a well-deserved, bad reputation. They also represent tremendous potential for you, the meeting participants, and your organization. They need not be boring, pointless, or painful. Instead they can be focused, productive, and engaging”.
Tom LaForce, American Author
Planning the meeting
Proper planning of the meeting is indispensable and unfortunately often neglected.
A necessary initial step is to decide whether a meeting is absolutely necessary in the first place or whether a less costly alternative, such as e-mail, phone call, memo or one-to-one interactions would be just as effective or even more so. If an exchange or a debate between leader and group members is essential to reach a major goal or decision, a meeting may be justified.
It is vital for the success of meetings to limit the number of issues to be addressed to no more than 2 or 3. In fact, in many instances, keeping to only one important objective is the best option: it reduces the meeting’s duration, enhances interactions and increases the likelihood of arriving at an actionable result.
Limiting the number of meetings and keeping their duration short has become critical in light of the ever-increasing demands and priorities in everybody’s work schedule.
The proper choice of attendees is another key element of good planning. Restrict participation to individuals who are concerned by the issues raised at the meeting, who have the experience and competence necessary to contribute in meaningful ways and who have a role in the implementation of the decisions reached.
What is their ideal number? It is difficult to generalize, but experience shows that if we seek active participation by all, groups with 5 to 10 members are most effective. Typically the efficiency of a meeting is inversely proportional to the number of participants. Besides, meetings with fewer participants are less costly.
Finally, a notification must be sent to all participants well in advance of the meeting with a clear indication of the purpose and place of the meeting, the time and duration, together with a detailed agenda and the timing for each item, accompanied by documents to be consulted by the attendees before the meeting.
Conducting the Meeting
The following steps are necessary for meetings to be effective (Axelrod & Axelrod, 2014; LaForce, 2014; Petz, 2011; Pittampalli, 2011):
–Always start on time. Don’t wait for latecomers!
–Recalling the purpose of the meeting and its objectives, as well as spelling out the rules are essential. Electronic devices, such as phones, should be put on hold for the duration of the meeting. It is especially important for the group manager to set the proper example!
–Encourage a maximum of inputs from everyone. Avoid dominating individuals taking up too much space by going around the table and asking each participant for their comments. Introverts, who have just as much to offer as more assertive participants, must be drawn into the exchange.
–There is an ever-looming temptation to debate emotional side issues that always crop up in the course of the discussion. It is vital to avoid distractions and remain focused on the main goals of the meeting.
–While it is necessary to follow a predefined structure, it is just as important to allow all group members to express themselves. This is one of the reasons for limiting the number of participants and objectives.
–Periodically summarizing the meeting’s progression and reviewing remaining issues will help the team to stay on target and move along.
–A record must be kept of the conclusions and decisions reached and distributed to all members to allow everyone to propose corrections and guide the implementation of the actions decided.
–It is important to end on time, to thank everyone for their contributions and remind them of their responsibilities in the follow-up.
–Obtaining periodic feedback from attendees on the quality of the leadership, interactions, discussions, decisions, duration and choice of participants will provide clues for improving meetings.
In any organization, before scheduling the next meeting, ask yourself some basic questions: Is the meeting necessary? Do I have a specific purpose and agenda for the meeting? Who really needs to be there? How can I ensure that it will be focused and interactive? (1; LaForce, 2014)
If you cannot decisively answer these questions, don’t have the meeting. Your organization will appreciate the money you saved and your employees will be grateful for the extra time they gained to do their work and get home on time.
Given the enormous stakes involved, training on conducting effective meetings, as well as on participating as engaged members, has become indispensable for everyone.
Finally, imagine the following scenario. At the end of the next meeting, where you have done everything to make it a success: Attendees leave empowered and energized and look forward to the next one! The benefits for all are obvious.
Axelrod D., Axelrod, E. (2014), Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.
LaForce T. (2014), Meeting Hero: Plan and Lead Engaging, Productive Meetings, Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Lencioni P. (2004), Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Petz J. (2011), Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Your Meetings, or Get Out of More Meetings, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.
Pittamballi A. (2011), Read This Before Our Next Meeting, The Domino Project, Amazon com.
Marcel Lucien Goldschmid, PhD, Director of MTC