I was discussing time management with an executive the other day. I mentioned that I would guess 40 percent of his calendar for next year was already consumed—beyond his control—by meetings. He told me he thought that 40 percent was actually a low estimate and that it was probably 50 percent or more. I bet that is typical of most companies, especially medium and large ones. Small companies have a lot more hallway and drop-in meetings that resolve issues faster and more effectively.
He and I moved on to discuss how meetings are or are not productive. As I outlined my thoughts for him, I realized it might be useful to present them here for everyone to remember. They are not profound concepts; in fact, they are rather obvious—yet, usually ignored. However, ignoring these basic ideas results in meetings that waste a lot of time and still don’t accomplish much.
Meetings should have a purpose, and there are four that I can think of that are usually a waste of time.
- To inform everyone about the status of something: Think of all the time being consumed. Instead, consider a better, more efficient way to communicate status updates. Gathering everyone in a room for an hour or more might be unnecessary.
- To permit all attendees to update each other on something: Again, it might be unnecessary to gather everyone simply to get their updates. Consider a more efficient process.
- To allow discussion of a topic of importance and give everyone the opportunity to speak and hear the viewpoints of others: Make sure the topic is indeed important and worth the time investment. Furthermore, these meetings can waste a lot of time if not managed well, but are also invaluable tools to help a group work together more effectively.
- To reach a decision on something: Business is not a democracy, so there’s no need for a vote. However, there is a need to reach a consensus and to have a clear understanding of that consensus after it's reached. So, instead, have the meeting to get everyone on board. The goal should be to have everyone leave the meeting committed to do whatever was agreed upon.
Whoever calls a meeting owns that meeting. The meeting owner must publish a meeting notice that includes the time, place and agenda. Otherwise, the first topic might consume too much time and might make your run out of time to discuss more important topics at the end of the meeting. Sometimes a whiteboard can be used as a parking lot of sorts, to move troublesome topics off the floor and let the meeting move ahead. The group can decide later if there’s time to revisit the "parking lot" issues or if they can be deferred to a future time (and meeting).
The meeting owner should also keep the minutes of the meeting (or delegate that task to someone else). Every meeting should result in a set of minutes that lists the date and time, the attendees, the topic and—here’s the important part—who agreed to do what and by when. This is where Excel spreadsheets come in handy. E-mail is fine for publishing the meeting minutes and commitments.
Unless meeting minutes are compiled and distributed, the goal of the meeting might not be accomplished. If one of the attendees who agreed to do something finds that he is going to miss the date committed to, he owes it to the others to advise the meeting owner (at a minimum) and set a new completion date so others can know about it and plan on it. Once again, e-mail is effective for this kind of simple and timely communication. It’s up to the person who missed a commitment whether they feel compelled to explain why. It might be relevant or it might just be an excuse.
Finally, how long should meetings last? No longer than they need to last. I once worked with a company whose culture had developed so well that they frequently scheduled and held effective 15-minute meetings. For that to work, everyone needs to be on time (that’s a big step in good management discipline, anyway). Next, the meeting owner has to frame the reason for the meeting and its expectations in both the agenda and the meeting, itself—and keep things moving. In a 15-minute meeting, there is no time for pontification, filibusters or storytelling.
This company did it and it worked. You might not be surprised to know that it is a very successful company that has grown to many times its original size and is a market leader in a couple of its product categories.
There you have them: some familiar but important rules about meetings. I smiled when the executive responded, “If people know they have to do all that, they might call fewer meetings.” That would be just fine, too. Everybody can use more time, right?