7 Steps to end the frustration of wasted meetings

 
 
One either meets or one works.
— Peter Drucker

Have you ever looked at your diary at the start of the week and seen it crammed full of meetings? Some days all you seem to do is to rush from one meeting to the next. At the end of it you look back at the pages and pages of notes that you've written and wonder what got done.

In the meantime the hundred or so emails that you've got today are just adding to the flood of messages in your inbox, the project proposal that you promised your client for tomorrow is still waiting for you on your desk and you've got the prospect of another caffeine fuelled evening just to get ready for the deluge tomorrow.

According to Atlassian professionals in the US spend on average 62 hours in meetings every month but 50% of those meetings were classified as being unproductive. That's four working days a month or 2 12 months a year that are lost in meetings at a total cost of $37 billion. The news isn't any better in the UK.

That's a lot of coffee and wasted Powerpoint slides.

We all need to have meetings to collaborate with collegues, clients and suppliers to get things done, but with so many meetings cluttering up our diaries how can you make sure that the meetings that you go to are worthwhile?

When is a 1 hour meeting not a 1 hour meeting?

Far too many meetings are scheduled without too much thought. It's all too easy to think "we'd better have a meeting about this". You look at your calendar, block out an hour session and send a meeting invitation. But is that one hour meeting really a one hour meeting?

Let's say that you're one of six people invited to a meeting. None of you work in the same place so you're going to meet somewhere about half an hour from each of you.

  • Meeting (6 people x 1 hour) = 6 hours
  • Travel (6 people x 1 hour) = 6 hours
  • Prepare the meeting agenda = 30 minutes
  • Review the meeting agenda and prepare for the discussion (6 people x 30 minutes) = 3 hours
  • Prepare and send follow up notes after the meeting = 30 minutes

And so it goes on.

But there's not just the financial consideration of people's time, travel and other costs. Before you send out your meeting invitation you need to think about the opportunity cost too.

What could you have achieved in the 16 hours that this meeting has really taken up?

Invisible meeting costs

The cost of a meeting can go way byond the time, money and opportunity. Badly organised, unproductive meetings have a significant impact in other ways.

A recent study for Wisembly found that poor meetings contributed to more stress, less motivation and loss of confidence in the person who had set up and run the meeting.

This was so bad that 25% of people surveyed admitted to searching for a new job when they were actually in a meeting!

So what can you do to cut down on the number of meetings that you have and make the ones that are essential productive so that you can use the space that you've created to get more meaningful, valuable work done?

Actions you can start implementing today

1. Cull your diary

Many times we arrange meetings and accept invitations to meetings as a "default" response. Pareto's Principle or the 80/20 rule says that 80% of the meetings that you have scheduled are going to be minimally productive for you at best.

Start by looking at your calendar for next week and review all the meetings that you have one by one. For each meeting ask yourself "do I really need to go to this meeting? How else could we do this without the need to have a meeting?"

To paraphrase Einstein, you want to have as many meetings as you need but no more. I knew a manager who was very resistant to the idea of having meetings of any sort, viewing them largely as a complete waste of everyone's time. Whilst you might think that's a reasonable principle, in practice you are going to need to have some meetings. In this case what happened was that when meetings finally happened everyone had so much that needed to be discussed that the meetings inevitably ran on for hours. Projects stalled, sometimes for weeks, because there were simply some things that needed round table discussion and agreement before they could move forward.

Once you've cancelled the meetings that you don't need, start applying some best practices to the ones that are left, starting with:

2. Always have an agenda

This seems like common sense but it's surprising how many meetings just don't have a pre-arranged agenda. If there's one single thing that you can do to improve the effective of meetings in your business, getting the agenda right is the one to pick. Yes, it may take a little extra time and thought in advance but the pay-off is exponential. Just having a well-thought out agenda will go a long way to making sure that your meeting is productive and actually achieves something significant. A good meeting agenda will actually cut down on the number of meetings that you need to have and the time you spend in them.

There are so many benefits to having a meeting agenda. Here are just a few:

i. You know in advance what you're going to talk about and you can prepare for it. There shouldn't be any unexpected surprises. Giving people time to prepare means that you should get a much more effective, briefer discussion.

ii. If you check the list of people invited to a meeting and the agenda then very often you can identify topics that you can deal with beforehand sometimes just with a quick phone call.

iii. You can circulate documents that you're planning to discuss in advance of the meeting.

iv. You can organise the agenda around who is going to contribute to a particular item. If you have a topic to discuss that only some people are going to contribute to you can put that at the end of the agenda so that anyone who's not involved can get more productive and useful work done elsewhere.

v. Preparing an agenda in advance can go a long way towards making sure that you don't try to fit too much into one session.

After all if you've arranged a meeting you have a responsibility to make sure that you use everyone's time effectively and responsibly.

If you don't get an agenda in advance from a meeting organiser, here's a sample script that you can use to get one. I'd suggest that you want to get a meeting agenda at least a day in advance although two days is much better:

"I've accepted a meeting invitation from you for this Thursday at 10am but I haven't received an agenda for it yet. I don't want to waste your time (and everyone else's) by showing up unprepared so please can you send an agenda through to me as soon as you can and no later than first thing on Wednesday morning.

I'd like to review all of the topics ahead of time and make sure that I get other people's opinions if I need to. I can also come armed with all the latest facts and figures so that I can make sure that my contribution to your meeting is as effective as it can be."

If you can I'd suggest copying this message to everyone else who's been invited to the meeting. That way they can make sure that if they have subjects that they'd like to talk about these are raised ahead of time.

If you don't get any sort of agenda it's usually a very good sign that the meeting is going to be disorganised and unproductive.

I once worked with a manager who always started every meeting with the same item. "Any other business". He wanted to give everyone the chance to talk about other issues that he hadn't planned for but of course it meant that sometimes it took a very long time to get through "AOB" and to the rest of the agenda.

3. Have short meetings with a definite start and end time

Fixing the duration of a meeting in advance helps focus everyone's attention and stops the discussion wandering. Studies have shown that both energy and focus drop dramatically after 1 12 hours so establishing that as the maximum length of time that any meeting will go on for is a good best practice, although most of your meetings can and should be much shorter than this.

In his classic book "The Effective Executive", Peter Drucker tells the story of a bank president that he was working with. Their meetings always lasted one hour 30 minutes. After about a year Mr. Drucker asked his client why their meetings were always the same length. "That's easy" replied the bank president. "I have found that my attention span is about an hour and a half. If I work on any one topic longer than this, I begin to repeat myself."

How many meetings have you been in that have lasted for hours where you just seem to go round in circles?

When you arrange a meeting review the agenda and ask yourself "what's the shortest time that we need to talk about this?" Don't default to arranging a meeting in blocks of 1 hour just because that's the way that your calendar application lays out your day.

Try experimenting with shorter meetings. In "Be Excellent At Anything" Tony Schwartz recounts the experience of David Pope, a senior leader at Wells Fargo, who decided to make every meeting half its usual time. "He discovered that just as much was accomplished, and he suddenly had an hour or two a day freed up for other activities."

Tony Schwartz has much more on energy and focus at The Energy Project.

4. Have a clear focus

Everyone will come to a meeting with slightly different ideas about what you're discussing. Sometimes people have wildly different ideas! Open every meeting by taking a few moments to clarify why everyone is here and what the end result of the meeting is going to be. 'We're here to agree the marketing budget for the next financial year" or "we need to decide whether or not to hire extra staff for the sales team."

Defining and agreeing the goal that you're all trying to get to at the start of the meeting means that you are all in agreement about where you're heading. It also means that as soon as you get to that point you're done, whether that's at the scheduled end of the meeting or sometimes long before you're scheduled to finish.

You can take this idea one step further and turn all of your agenda items into these kind of actionable statements.

Instead of having an item on the agenda like "Q1 Sales Report" why not try:

Review Sales Report for January to March

  • Discuss the highlights and any concerns about the report.
  • Decide if we need to hire additional sales staff.
    Please review the sales report PDF attached to this email before the meeting

Agenda items like this will make your meeting so much more effective.

5. Determine clear projects and actions before you finish the meeting

How many meetings have you sat in for hours only to leave without a clear sense of what you'd agreed was going to happen with what project as well as who was responsible for doing it?

Take at least five minutes before the end of the meeting (or fifteen if you need it) to go through the agenda item by item identifying all of the actions that you've agreed to take, who is responsible for doing them and (if you need to) how and when they're going to report back. That way everyone leaves the meeting with complete clarity about what is going to happen and who's going to do it.

Try not to assign projects or actions to more than one person. Having one lead person rather than two or three is a much better way of ensuring that projects get completed. Apple use the term "DRI" or "Directly Reponsible Individual" so that everyone (including the DRI!) knows who has responsibility for a project.

 
 

6. Use technology appropriately

Do you need to meet in person? Video conferencing applications are available pretty much everywhere so why not use tools like this to cut down on unnecessary travel.

7. Designate "meeting-free" days

You might not be able to restrict all of your meetings to one day a week like this Forbes columnist but why not start by blocking out time in your diary to give yourself some "meeting-free" space. You do need to protect your time, so why not have a meeting with yourself so that you can get some stuff done.

Meetings are essential and they're here to stay but there's a lot that you can do to make sure that all of your meetings become meaningful again.

Don't let your company be one where meetings are so bad that people use the time to check dating apps and websites like Tinder. 828,000 people in the UK admitted to doing that last year.

it is possible to have a company culture where people actively look forward to meetings. You may need to implement new ways of working but it is possible. You'll find that this sort of investment repays itself many times over in many different situations, not just in meetings.

If you'd like help making your meetings more effective and engaging for everyone try implementing some of these ideas and let me know the results by leaving a comment below.

 
Chris Beaumont