"Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything." ~John Kenneth Galbraith
"People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything." ~Thomas Sowell
There are tens of millions of meeting occurring in organizations around the world every day, and by some estimations, a third of them are unproductive. Now we could talk about the overall cost of these meetings in lost productivity (an estimated $37 billion in the U.S. alone), but that just puts a number on what crummy meetings mean for you personally; paramount among those is wasted time and effort.
The real problem is that almost no organizations have a structure for the meetings held within their walls. This leaves everyone to fend for themselves, both as a meeting organizer and as a participant. And when that happens, mistakes in meeting structure, process and etiquette spread like wildfire and consume all of the productivity from the meeting:
Phones and laptops out and on the table – This is a bit of a “chicken and the egg” scenario where the prevalence of people checking their phones and laptops in meetings for e-mail, Facebook messages, or a good place to get lunch is likely due to the fact that the meeting isn’t productive for them. That being said, multitasking destroys the focus and purpose of collaborating together in a meeting. Ever heard this in a meeting when someone is asked a question, “I’m sorry could you repeat that?” THAT just wasted 10 seconds of everyone’s life and showed that the material isn’t important enough to command their attention. Addressing all of the things on this list will help address this root cause, but in our “always on” culture, you will still need to institute this rule, otherwise all of the work improving the meeting structure will go to waste.
P.S. Everyone sees you checking the notification when your phone buzzes on the table, so phones in pockets, not on the table.
Having a meeting when an e-mail suffices – Technology has brought us all closer together and improved communication. I would wager that half of all unproductive meetings could be eliminated by just emailing the questions you were going to ask or sending the report everyone was going to go over together. Meetings need to have an agenda that requires collaboration or reasonably intense explanation. Reading a report together around a table is something you did in grade school reading class.
No facilitator – If there isn’t one person in charge of a meeting, then there is no one in charge. And if no one is in charge of the meeting, then the likelihood of staying on topic and getting something out of the meeting decreases dramatically. The facilitator of the meeting should be in charge of all the details; attendees, agenda, notes, and follow up. They are ultimately the one responsible for the meeting being productive.
Letting the boisterous rule the discussion – You likely know the one or two people in every meeting that have no issue whatsoever making their thoughts known to everyone else and tend to do 90% of the talking. While people talking isn’t a problem in and of itself, the facilitator of the meeting needs to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to speak and voice their thoughts and opinions (otherwise why have everyone there).
Filling time – When the agenda is done, so is the meeting. Get the heck out of the room and back to work. Too many times, the meeting just turns into people “shooting the breeze” to fill up the time remaining, and often holding others who would like to go captive through some vague allusion that there will be something work related discussed. Besides, usually the time period set for the meeting was either completely arbitrary (are your meetings all 30 minutes or 60 minutes?) or with only a loose idea of length anyways.
Supporting lateness – Hey it’s rude, but there are all kinds of reasonable excuses for being late, most notably being caught up with a customer or everyone’s boss. So you’re not going to catch me stating that you should lock the door once the meeting starts. But there is no need to stop the meeting and waste everyone else’s time catching them up. Let their neighbor at the table do that if they like, or let them fend for themselves. Time is the biggest thief of productivity in meetings and you need to show everyone that you are respecting it.
No agenda – Every meeting needs to have a clear purpose. If you don’t have a stated purpose you are dramatically less likely to achieve it. A printed and distributed agenda helps keep the meeting on track and on time.
And no notes - Ever need to call someone who attended a meeting with you and ask them to clarify something that occurred for you? That’s a failure of the meeting organizer. Taking and distributing notes is the next logical step in the process because it clears up any question over what was decided and where responsibilities lie. Even if it was one thing, sending out an e-mail with the meeting results clarifies everything.
Too many people – One benefit of an agenda and notes is that it provides a nice and tidy summary for anyone asking about the meeting. If the person you were considering inviting wasn’t likely to contribute, or was only needed to be there for one thing, they can get updated later. There is a fallacy that the more people you have in a meeting the more potential value there is from varied opinions and thoughts, in fact it makes collaboration more scattered and less likely to accomplish the goal of the meeting since the responsibility for that goal is distributed over a much larger group.
No action – Have you ever left a meeting and there weren’t any action items for anyone? My bet is that is what occurs in a sizeable portion of meetings. This is often the result of not having a clear purpose or agenda, but can just as likely be about people wanting to “duck” responsibility or tasks (hey, we all have plenty on our plates). Every good meeting has next steps assigned by the end of it.
“Obligatory” meetings – Remember when you set up that weekly meeting to go over inventory concerns? Remember how those concerns were basically addressed a month ago? Why are you still meeting every week for half an hour? Regularly scheduled meetings have shelf lives. At some point they either need to go away entirely, have their frequency reduced, or have a change in scope to make them useful still. They were most likely very useful at one point, but usefulness needs to be assessed continually.
No follow up – Many meetings may get most of the above things right, but fail to produce results because there is no follow-up. My favorite meeting that rarely has follow-up is actually yearly reviews. There’s almost always a lot of talk about things that you are going to work on, but almost never any follow-up on how that’s going … well, at least until next year. Yet another reason for there to be a meeting facilitator is to have someone who can follow-up on the completion of the action items. Everyone has a lot on their plate, and it’s very easy to take those items that are from a “shared responsibility” project and put them on the back-burner of priorities. If there isn’t any follow-up, there is far less of a chance that the task is done, and done to the satisfaction of everyone.
Like so many tools, meeting are very valuable, but are also very easily misused and abused. It takes more effort than just “pulling everyone into a room” to pull off a great meeting. And you also need the insight and wisdom to know when not to use the meeting as a tool and use another method. Hopefully with the 12 items above in mind you’ll have an easier time having great meetings in the future.