How many meetings have you sat through which ended with little to nothing getting accomplished? According to a 2017 Harvard Business Review survey of executives, approximately 71% felt that most business meetings are unproductive and inefficient. This percentage likely aligns pretty close to your experience as well.
There are over 25 million meetings every day in the US alone. Conservatively assuming even a third of these meetings are unproductive, it’s costing the companies an estimated $37 billion per year. (Source: Fuze)
When we define unproductive meetings, this can include:
- Spending the whole meeting discussing a topic without getting to a decision or outcome to drive progress forward.
- Starting meetings late due to critical individuals running between meetings.
- Going over the scheduled meeting time because resources showed up late or the agenda wasn’t clearly defined and managed.
- Discussions going on tangents due to ineffective meeting management.
- Too many resources in a meeting which leads to inability to make decisions.
- Too many resources in a meeting due to a lack of clarity on agenda and expected outcomes.
- Rescheduling a meeting since critical resources did not attend because they didn’t realize they were required.
- Disengaged resources who are checking email or having side conversations.
This is just a small list of reasons why a meeting may be unproductive. What effective business meeting management comes down to is essentially ensuring:
- Outcomes: Agenda and expected outcomes are clear in the meeting invite.
- People: Minimum necessary decision makers and stakeholders are present and engaged.
- Time: Topics are time boxed to prevent going down tangents and past scheduled meeting time.
While these may seem self-explanatory, there are many reasons why any one of the items above may not be achieved. Unfortunately, all it takes is just one of them to throw a meeting off. But in many cases, it’s a combination of all three which really drives ineffective meeting results.
There are countless articles across the web throwing out innovative or creative ideas to improve meeting management. What are they all lacking? Solid recommendations on how to implement the improvements within your organizations, teams, or personal meetings.
This is certainly one of those things that requires significant change management when looking to adopt these concepts company wide. There will always be obstacles and push back, but there is no reason you can’t adopt one or more of these ideas in your staff meetings, one-on-ones, team updates, or presentations.
I would recommend starting with one idea at a time to master it before moving onto the next. Trying to completely change meeting culture is difficult, but your peers will take note how effectively you can manage meeting time.
Idea #1 – adopt the 25 / 50 Minute rule for shorter meetings
By default, almost every company has the unspoken rule that meetings should be 30 or 60 minutes.
Do you know what the problem is with this? You unsurprisingly use up every one of those minutes (and then some). It’s amazing how few meetings actually get to the desired outcomes and wrap up early. It almost never happens.
This results in delays to getting the next meeting or actual work started and wastes time on side conversations that use up the minutes.
This is where the 25 / 50 Minute Rule originated. The concept is to limit meetings to either 25 minutes for a shorter topic or 50 minutes for those requiring more in-depth conversation. The idea is that you will be forced to control the flow of conversation so you can get to the key points and decisions sooner.
In addition, we’ve found one of the greatest benefits is that you will no longer be throwing off the daily schedules for meeting attendees. They are able to use the extra 5 or 10 minutes to catch up on email (so they’re not during meetings), take a bio-break, or have a quick discussion with their team. These are often some of the biggest impediments for meetings every day.
I’ve seen this rule / principle adopted most recently in the IT organization (~3K employees) at a large company. What made it successful was building a champion for the idea with the CIO.
The CIO mandates his direct reports and all people managers follow the 25 / 50 rule when setting up meetings. To this day, there are still people that don’t follow the 25 / 50 rule, but they get push back from leaders which is helping correct this.
This idea has since spread into various business units and most IT staff follow the rule. The difference this culture shift has made is incredible. There are a lot less delays due to folks running between meetings and leaders are also observing an increase in staff productivity.
How to Implement
- Start by scheduling meetings using the 25 / 50 Minute Rule yourself.
- Gather your team or peers for a 25 minute (or less) discussion on the value of this rule. Insist they give this concept a try for at least two weeks – they won’t want to go back.
- Collect feedback from your team or peers on what they have observed.
- Present successes with the rule to your leadership to build champions with the idea.
- If possible, change the default meeting times in your company’s preferred mail and calendar technology (e.g., Outlook, Gmail) to encourage adoption.
Idea #2 – Reduce demand for “fancy” presentation slides
This is not to say you should never prepare presentations, but how we utilize the technology needs to change in most work places.
Through my time in management consulting, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations have become my go-to for conveying ideas, decisions, timelines, and so on.
I don’t have enough fingers to count the times I’ve spent several hours building a presentation just to have the meeting go a different direction. In some cases, we didn’t even pull up the presentation at all. It’s unbelievably frustrating to realize you just wasted all that time.
Often as early as high school, many of us are taught how to communicate ideas mainly using slides and a few other mechanisms. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a great medium for presenting polished ideas to land a new client or secure funding for a project.
Outside of those types of high value scenarios, does it make sense to spend hours designing eye catching and creative presentation? The answer is usually no, however, there may be cases where graphics can help effectively tell the story behind your idea.
Should we be spending more time focusing that creativity on building or generating ideas? If you ask most managers and senior leadership, the answer is a resounding YES!
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint presentations all together for executive meetings. Instead, he requires each meeting to start with 30 minutes of attendees reading a several page memo that’s “narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns.” Following those 30 minutes, the team discusses the topic and gets to the desired outcomes.
This may be overkill, but his sentiment behind the mandate was spot on. It is estimated that people on average spend up to 4 hours per week preparing for status update meetings. In many cases, this includes putting together several slides to communicate current status.
By switching to sharing ideas through narrative or stories, we are able to connect with our teams at a deeper level than a few bullets can achieve. Your ideas flow together in a more meaningful way like a story you’d read in a book or news article. This makes your ideas easier for most to consume and take action on.
You don’t necessarily need to go to the extreme of banning PowerPoint slides, but there are steps you can take starting today to improve how you share ideas.
How to Implement
- Communicate this desired change in meeting approach to your team and peers.
- As part of the meeting agenda, provide short paragraphs explaining each topic and lay out what decisions, input, or actions are required.
- Take 30-45 minutes to write a short narrative in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc. on the topic in a way that connects to with the meeting attendees.
- Distribute the document prior to the meeting and allow for time at the beginning of the meeting so everyone can read it. (some may have already during a block of time saved from Idea #1)
- Collect feedback and modify your narrative approach to better connect with attendees.
You can start with #2 as a first easy step and work your way towards #3 if you want to adopt the Amazon way.
This is a big change from how we work today. It will take time to develop the narrative writing skill and make your peers comfortable with this approach. Be patient and make it a collaborative learning experience.
Idea #3 – Insist on not attending meetings without clear agendas or expected outcomes
How do you know you need to attend a meeting if you you are unclear of the agenda topics or desired outcomes? While you can assume you’re needed since you were invited, but unfortunately you can’t know for sure.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in many meetings where I have asked myself the question, “am I really needed here?”. There have been a few instances where I’ve asked the meeting holder that question.
This idea should be easy for you to implement and request others do as well. It takes discipline and requires you to hold others accountable for adopting this idea as well.
However, it’s easy to see why this overlooked meeting prerequisite is so important. With a clear agenda, meetings have a better chance at staying on-track and getting the right stakeholders engaged.
How to IMPLEMENT
- Set expectation that agendas are required with peers and those you frequently work with.
- Provide a clear agenda with defined outcomes for any meeting you schedule.
- Contact meeting schedulers to request they add an agenda.
- If one is not added, insist on not attending the meeting unless an agenda is provided.
- Consistently provide reminders in team meetings and place meeting expectation visuals in all meeting rooms.
While not attending a meeting may result in some frustration for the meeting host, they’ll learn this rule quickly. This is one mechanism to help enforce behavior change.
Idea #4 – Provide summary of talking points & decision points ahead
This idea follows similar principles to Ideas #2 and 3, but the premise is that you’re giving your audience a preview of the discussion. The talking points outline the intended path of discussion and decisions to be focused on.
It allows your invitees to internalize the information and develop meaningful perspectives. They can also collect supporting details and conduct any needed outreach ahead of the meeting to add further value to the discussion.
Also, by providing your talking points ahead of time, it allows everyone the ability to determine whether they need to participate. Odds are good that one or more invitees likely are not crucial to the discussion.
In meetings with leadership, it also provides them the opportunity to shape the discussion if there are other higher priority topics or decisions. Maybe they’ve received new information or guidance from executives that will change the direction of the project.
The greatest benefit by providing agenda talking points is that it structures the discussion. All meeting attendees know exactly what will be covered so any other non-relevant topics will need to wait. This is a big change from poorly structured meetings which will go in any direction the attendees, not you, want to take it.
how to implement
- Along with your meeting invites, include bullet points for each agenda item describing what you will cover.
- Outline critical roadblocks, dependencies, decisions, or information you wish to address.
- Provide concise goals or expected outcomes for the meeting.
- Identify resources critical to each discussion point or outcome.
- Coach your teammates and peers on how to use this technique to improve meeting efficiency.
Idea #5 – limit the participants based on the type of meeting
How many meetings have you been to where there are individuals that go the entire meeting without saying a word? How many include 10+ attendees and result in discussions that derail the meeting or don’t reach a needed decision?
Odds are you’ve been to many meetings that fit this description. What this means is that you likely have too many non-critical resources involved in the meeting.
Those folks that don’t speak up are often multi-tasking or may not have relevant input to drive the discussion forward. Their time is likely better spent getting other work done since they add no value to the meeting.
Along the same lines, it’s great to get ideas and perspectives from a broad range of team members or stakeholders. However, there are better ways to collect this input than during meetings where you’re looking to reach a decision or align on paths forward.
This is especially the case when you have 10+ stakeholders in a meeting. Everyone wants to have their ideas heard, but it becomes near impossible to control and guide the discussion effectively with this many people. Your meeting quickly gets taken over and you lose any ability to build consensus on any one idea.
Ideally, decision-making meetings (leadership, steering committees, etc.) should include around 5 decision makers and any subject matter resources required to present or supplement the decision. The number 5 gives you a tie breaker and prevents derailments from external commentary.
Any more “decision makers” outside of this often results in decision paralysis. In most cases, it usually comes down to 1 or 2 individuals that will make the final decision.
This idea applies to your team meetings as well depending on team size at your company. If you are looking for specific actions or results, you’ll want to limit attendees only to the core leaders or resources that will be responsible for owning those actions.
When it comes to distributing information, you should look for multiple avenues to share with your broader team. Whether it’s through a monthly / quarterly Town Hall meeting, email distribution, or the team page on the company’s intranet. You’ll want to provide multiple opportunities for your teams to absorb the information if it’s critical to everyone’s job.
How to implement
- Leadership & Steering Committees – No more than 10 participants with a target of 3-5 decision makers. The others may be subject matter experts presenting critical information.
- Team Status Updates – No more than 10 with only leaders that can disseminate critical information to the team.
- Informational Meetings – While this may be a larger audience, it should really be kept to a 25 minute meeting following Idea #1. If you can’t communicate the critical information in 30 minutes or less with supplemental offline material, you may need to work on the messaging.
Of course, meeting sizes will vary depending on the organizational sizes at your company. Smaller companies will naturally have smaller meeting sizes than larger corporations. However, even at a large corporation, you should still target to keep meetings to similar sizes as above to improve meeting effectiveness.
The common theme across all of these ideas to drive more effective meetings should be apparent. We need to do a better job at supporting our meetings by providing clear agendas and explicitly outline the topics and decisions ahead of time.
This allows sufficient time for attendees to determine their required level of engagement and ensure the desired outcomes are achieved.
Second only to people, time is the most valuable resource for companies to manage. We can reach unprecedented levels of productivity if we take back just a portion of time we spend in ineffective meetings.
Can you imagine a world where you actually have enough time to complete the value-add activities you’re supposed to be working on?
We’d love to hear from you if you’ve adopted these or other creative ways for your team to share information and collaborate. What’s working for you?