At nearly every level of corporate life, meetings take up a lot of our time. Glance at a senior manager, CEO or CFO's schedule on any given day and you'll see a wide swath of time reserved for meetings of all sorts. Unfortunately, too many meetings can be models of tedium and inefficiency—eroding entire afternoons of potential productivity. A 2011 survey by Bain & Company, a global business consulting firm, showed that an astounding 85 percent of executives said they were dissatisfied with the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings at their companies.
What can smart business owners do to revamp how meetings are conducted? How can companies make sure that meetings result in real decision-making and have clear business benefits? If you'd like to give your employees part of their days back and create a culture where meetings are more strategic, quick and efficient, here are seven steps to get you started.
1. Determine if a meeting is even necessary.
The first step in building a better meeting is determining if a meeting is necessary in the first place. Remember, meetings are simply a communication method and not every occasion calls for the same approach. Likewise, not every event warrants staff putting business on hold, leaving their offices or calling in remotely. Ask yourself, "Does this meeting would have a clear timing, psychological or business advantage? Could the information be handled through email? Challenges resolved through a quick one-on-one?"
2. Define the objective (and stick to it).
Every meeting should have a clear purpose; otherwise, it's just an elaborate coffee-break (minus the refreshments). Define the goal at the beginning and work to stay on-topic. Important peripheral and secondary issues will naturally arise, so encourage attendees to take notes and follow-up with each other afterward.
3. Create a clear agenda.
The agenda is your meeting's logistical roadmap. It should clearly outline the attendees, objective, updates and information that will be covered. The agenda should be thorough enough to accomplish the goal, but focused enough to do it quickly and at a high-level. Agenda-creep is a constant threat, so redirect conversations, keep the objective in mind and stay on-topic.
4. Keep it small.
Have you ever been to a "kitchen sink meeting" (huge standing-room-only events, where it seems like everyone but the kitchen sink has been invited as a required attendee)? These tend to be organized by new, over-eager managers who err on the side of inclusion without understanding that the most efficient meetings are small.
With few exceptions, meetings work best when there are 10 or fewer attendees. The limited size encourages problem-solving, discussion and information sharing. Larger meetings are just glorified live broadcasts, better used for shareholder conferences or motivational seminars.
5. Keep it brief.
Meetings with a clear objective and agenda can accomplish a lot in little time. If you're hosting a meeting that will require more than 30 minutes of your employees' day, ask yourself why. Is your agenda too broad and ambitious? Is it better to split the meeting into two parts? Have you invited too large a group? Attention spans wane after about 30 minutes and after an hour most attendees are just warming chairs and trying to figure out how to make up for lost time.
6. Time it right.
Every workday has a cycle. Combine a bit of psychology and biology when scheduling meetings. Meetings held on Monday mornings, Friday afternoons, and immediately following lunch usually suffer from day-dreaming or digestion. Opt for quick meetings in the late morning and mid-afternoon for best results.
7. Reserve one day that's meeting-free.
Going meeting-free one day a week helps employees better schedule their time and catch up on projects without interruption. Define the Meeting-Free day at your company and encourage managers at all levels to honor it.
For owners and senior management, meetings may be the final frontier in waste reduction and operational efficiency. Running smarter meetings saves time, and that saves money. Creating a culture where meetings are used tactically for specific purposes and with focused expectations helps companies keep employees motivated and avoid wasted afternoons at the round table. With that in mind, can you think of a better reason to adjourn your next meeting early?
Kentin Waits is a freelance writer and marketing specialist based in Portland, Ore. His work has been featured in US Airways magazine and top-rated blogs such as Wise Bread, the Consumerist and MSN SmartMoney. When he's not writing, Kentin runs a small online antiques business.