Wait a minute. Aren’t meetings important? Isn't this how we make the most important decisions, communicate the most important messages, solve critical problems, develop new strategies and build camaraderie with our teammates? Evidently not.
The verdict is in, and according to professionals, internal meetings are killing productivity. The disdain for meetings is so strong that the majority of workers and managers say meetings top the list of “biggest time wasters” at work. Meeting-weary participants are fighting back. A recent survey conducted by a time tracking software company revealed that 91% of professionals admitted they daydreamed during meetings, 73% said they did other work and 39% confessed to dozing.
Meetings aren't the problem. Bad meetings are.
Leading an effective meeting is a skill. It is one that many managers take for granted. There is an assumption that once you’re in management, you have the skills needed to run a good meeting. There is strong evidence to the contrary. Research shows that meeting leaders commonly lack self-awareness and rate their skills as far better than meeting participants do.
Planning and managing a meeting that leaves participants feeling valued, productive, focused and motivated takes more than understanding the basic mechanics. It takes strategy and strong facilitation skills. I’ve been fortunate to study meeting facilitation from some of the best facilitators in the world. Here are my top ten strategies for significantly improving the effectiveness of your meetings:
1. Think ROI – Before you say, “let’s have a meeting” or you agree to attend one, think ROI. What’s the cost of sitting at the table? Not just your hourly rate but the cost of everyone in the room. Labor expense is only part of the equation. Lost opportunity cost is also a consideration. What would or could people be doing for the business if they weren’t tied up in the meeting? Is the value of what stands to come out of the meeting worth the expense? Focusing on a meeting’s ROI serves you in three ways. You are more likely to make sure there is a clear and compelling reason to meet, which results in fewer but more valuable meetings. You think more carefully about who you invite, which ultimately reduces the amount of time people spend in meetings. Being conscious of the expense puts the pressure on you to make sure the meeting produces a meaningful outcome.
2. Be 100% clear on purpose – One of the top complaints of attendees is that meetings often lack purpose and feel like a waste of time. Building an agenda is not enough. Agendas are typically just lists of discussion topics. They don't address the outcomes you are looking for and the roles attendees are expected to play.
When you think about having a meeting get crystal clear on your purpose and what you expect from attendees. What do you want to accomplish? What type of meeting is needed to achieve this purpose? Is it information, discussion, decision-making or some blend of objectives? Is it the attendees job to make the final decision? Is it their role to come to the meeting with potential solutions? Is it their responsibility to bring information on a specific situation?
Let’s take a business development meeting as an example. You are concerned that new business sales are down and you want to meet with the sales team. You call a meeting to “development opportunities.” You have the meeting and people spend an hour whining about economic conditions and how much competition there is. You leave the meeting frustrated because you didn't accomplish what you wanted. The staff leaves feeling like they wasted valuable time.
What did you really want to happen? Did you want to come away with a specific list of steps the department will take to work on reversing the negative sales trend? Did you want specific information on what’s changed in the past three months? Did you want a better understanding of where the agency was winning and losing on new business?
In advance of the meeting, be specific with the group about what needs to come out of the meeting and the role you expect them to play.
4. Limit participation – In the era of inclusivity, there is a tendency to invite “everybody.” This may explain why, according to a Harris Poll, the average American worker spends 24% of their work week in meetings – up 14% from four years ago. Limit participation to the people who really need to be in the room. When choosing attendees, consider: Who has passion for the topic? Who has knowledge of the topic? Who has the power to agree to action? Who needs to be in the room to insure success? Whose absence will jeopardize it? Who are you in danger of inviting in order to avoid hurt feelings, even though you know they shouldn’t attend?
5. Prepare participants in advance – Typically, a significant percentage of meeting time is devoted to getting people on the same page and providing background information. This cuts into valuable discussion time. Send meeting materials in advance, including: the meeting purpose, timeframe, outcomes you’re looking for, what you expect of participants and background relative to what you’ll be covering. This manages attendees’ expectations and gives them a chance to prepare. Some participants will review the advance materials, others won't. Avoid backtracking and reviewing all the background at the meeting. It is unfair to the people who prepare and a disincentive to prepare in the future. People will quickly get the message they need to review materials sent in advance.
6. Leverage time – We all know there is truth to Parkinson’s law that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Make the timeframe for meetings as short as possible. If you would normally schedule a meeting for an hour, try 45 minutes. When you create your agenda, include time frames for each topic. This will help ensure you cover issues within the time allotted.
Start and end the meeting on time. Don't wait for people who are late or repeat what’s been discussed for their benefit. Never, ever be late for your own meeting. Arriving late, regardless of your power and position, sends a strong signal about the importance you place on the topic and the respect you have for the people in the room.
7. Develop meeting ground rules – Ground rules establish clear expectations about the behaviors that facilitate group effectiveness. They create the shared social norms about how your meetings operate. For example, your ground rules might include:
- We aim to start and finish on time. Late comers/early leavers are responsible for catching up on what they miss without disrupting the meeting.
- Monitor the airspace you take (45 seconds) when you share your thoughts, feeling and ideas.
- We all have something to learn and teach.
- No use of electronics during the meeting.
If you would like to see a complete list of the ground rules we use, email email@example.com.
8. Manage the room and yourself – Post the meeting purpose, what needs to be accomplished and the agenda in a highly visible spot in the room. Quickly reviewing this information at the beginning of the meeting reminds everyone why they’re there and what needs to be accomplished.
As the meeting leader/facilitator, one of your roles is maximizing the quality and level participation of by ensuring that everyone in the room has voice. Don't allow select people to dominate the conversation. Those who talk the most aren't always the ones with the best ideas. Draw out each attendee.
Keep the group focused on the issues that count. It is easy for triviality to dominate a discussion. People can be apprehensive to speak up about the big, complex, important decisions, because they don't want to risk embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong thing or not having a good answer. Conversations naturally gravitate to trivial, low risk, opinion-based topics. This gives people a way to feel (and appear) as if they are contributing without putting themselves on the line. If you’re not careful, the meeting on articulating the organization's value proposition for the website can turn into a long, heated debate on the color of the homepage.
Avoid judging the content of what people share. Judging tends to shut down input and increases the odds that only the boldest employees will speak up. If you are the “power” person in the room, pay close attention to your body language and comments. Most people will be reading your signals and filtering what they say, based on your reactions. Be as neutral as you can. Even watch positive comments like “good idea” or “great idea.” The person who was told they had a good idea is disappointed their idea wasn’t great. When you don't comment on an idea, the room reads that as you thought it was a bad idea – even though you may have liked it.
9. Clarify what’s next – Ultimately people will judge the quality of your meeting on what happens next. People need to feel that something will result from the time they invested. End each meeting with the group’s feedback on whether you accomplished the meeting objective. Then, get the group to agree on the next steps, who is responsible and the time frame for completion.
10. Consider alternatives – Scheduling meetings seems to be the default response for dealing with most business issues. But it’s not always the best alternative. Meetings make sense when a two-way dialog and real-time feedback are critical. If that’s not the case, consider alternatives.
Technology is giving us new and powerful tools to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of how we work. If you are simply in search of answers or feedback, email can be an effective alternative. Instant messaging (IM) can be a good option if you are working on a proposal with a coworker and need to maintain a long-term virtual “presence” as you work. It’s a convenient way to exchange ideas, give updates, pose questions, and share problems as they come up. IM programs maintain a full record of the chat session and there’s no danger of missing anything or losing it. If you’re working with others on a project management tools like Slack, Asana, Monday or Trello, you can set up password protected chat rooms in seconds where you can chat, collaborate, share documents and make decisions with colleagues and business partners.
Stop before you send that next meeting invite
Next time you think about scheduling a meeting, remind yourself of these five questions: Why do I need a meeting? What needs to be accomplished for it to be a success? Who absolutely needs to be in the room? How can I minimize the time it takes? How will I help ensure that participants see the results and value in exchange for the time invested?
The formula for running effective meeting that people want to attend isn't rocket science. It just takes getting out of default mod and automatically scheduling meetings, thinking through and communicating what needs to be accomplished and building your facilitation skills.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.
"There is an assumption that once you’re in management, you have the skills needed to run a good meeting. There is strong evidence to the contrary. Research shows that meeting leaders commonly lack self-awareness and rate their skills as far better than meeting participants do."