Meeting Madness

It’s only getting worse. And there is no cure. I’m talking about meetings. Most sapiens are natural social networkers. And that means we need to know what is going on, who is doing what, how it’s going to be done, where we’re doing it, and why we’re doing it this way and not that way. Often the meetings take up more time than the task.

I have over 30 years of meeting experience and I feel confident that we can do better. Here’s my advice for optimizing meetings, both from the point of view of an attendee and as an organizer.

Attendee

Look at your calendar! Back to back meetings. Double and Triple booked. No time for lunch or travel between meetings. No time for work or thinking. So you bring your laptop and work during the meeting, not paying attention until you are called upon. You bring your lunch and eat during the meeting. You find yourself day dreaming as you wait your turn to give an update for 5 minutes during a 60 minute meeting. You try to ask questions and argue points only to get dragged off topic as the meeting spirals out of control. I’ve experienced all this and I’ve done all this.

First, don’t skip lunch. Take 30 mins in the middle of every day to eat, meditate, or watch a video on clean coding. You need your energy to focus and participate.

Second, tell everyone who invites you to a meeting (even me) that you are short handed and likely to remain that way so they have to accommodate you (not the other way around). You need the option to leave early after your part is over. Sit by the door. Arrive on time and leave as soon as you can.

Third, request an agenda or list of topics that require your attention and attendance. Try to do the work and provide the info before the meeting and politely ask if you can skip it. There are only 131,400 working hours in an average lifetime. Make sure you’re not spending all those hours in meetings.

Organizer

Every once in a while I bet a co-worker has grabbed you at the end of a meeting and complimented you on what a productive and inspirational discussion you just led. What a great feeling! Every meeting you hold should meet that bar!

First, ask yourself if you really need this meeting. If you don’t cancel it. Even if it’s a regular status meeting. If everything is on track and you don’t need anything from anyone, kill the meeting. The best meeting is the meeting that never happened.

Second, plan your meeting. Supposedly there are six types of meetings: status update, info sharing, decision making, problem solving, brainstorming, and team building. Use this list to make sure you and your attendees are ready to have the meeting.

  • Status Update and Info Sharing: Tell folks they can skip the meeting if they get you the info you need before hand. Make sure you send out a report of all the collected status after the meeting and only those with something to contribute need to attend.
  • Decision Making: Provide the decision points and analysis before the meeting. Make sure you provide a report of action items and decisions made after the meeting so that everyone is on the same page afterwords–that way you don’t have to repeat the meeting!
  • Problem Solving and Brainstorming: Provide background beforehand and outline the process you’ll use to run the meeting. After the meeting write up the results and explain next steps.
  • Team building: Have fun and keep it short. Frequent, brief, fun activities build better teams than infrequent, all-day, somber off-sites.

Most meetings are combo meetings as in let’s share some status and then make a decision or let’s doing brainstorming and then some team building. I’m pretty sure combo meetings are a bad idea. Try to turn combos into separate meetings. If you can’t break them apart, provide a break between segments and a formal agenda so that attendees know which meeting-within-a-meeting they are in.

Third, direct your meetings. Every meeting should be structured like a great movie with a beginning, middle, and end. Every meeting should have a clear protagonist and antagonist. Every meeting should have a quest, that once achieved, signals that the meeting is over and everyone can go home (hopefully early). Keep your attendees alert and awake. Give them permission to leave after their part in the movie is over. Edit digressions and dissembling out of the movie. Ensure the meeting is meaningful to your attendees. That means stopping some people from chewing the scenery and calling upon other people to play their parts.

My Favorite Meetings

Every week I hold a staff meeting with my direct and some in-direct reports. I don’t care much for the org chart so the invitation list grows and shrinks as needed. Sometimes I do a great job and the staff meeting is truly like a movie. But much of the time I create a flop of a meeting. I’m trying to do better.

I’m inspired by the brevity and tightness of the meetings recommended by the Agile development process. I’ve found that, even if you are not writing code, a daily standup that lasts for 15 minutes and asks three questions (What have you done? What are you planning to do? Are there any impediments in your way?) works wonders for managing any sort of on-going issue.

The retrospective is another great idea to steal from Agile, especially for performance reviews: What is working? What isn’t working? What needs to change?

We spend so much time in meetings that I fear we’ve become complacent. If you’re anything like me, you mindlessly accept any meeting that comes your way and then wonder how you’ve completely run out of time.

Well, let’s stop the meeting madness. it begins with you and me!

One Reply to “Meeting Madness”

  1. John,
    I can’t agree more. American companies hold an estimated 11 million meetings every day. That’s a lot of conference room hours.

    But along with points highlighted, it’s important to limit/restrict number of attendees. Like a “two pizza rule” we hear from Jeff Bezo’s of the world.

    All in all, a good take on making meetings productive. Will keep in mind before asking meeting with you. 🙂

    Ashish

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