Get Out of Meeting Hell

Once, while working at a company other than this one, I attended a meeting about meetings. I didn’t really learn much from this, but I did pick up one interesting tidbit; prior to that meeting, the heads of the company had a meeting about it. This means they accomplished what was thought to be impossible – a meeting about a meeting about meetings.

Ah, meetings! As talent managers or really anyone working in any type of organization surely knows, they’re pervasive. Consider this; I hate meetings, but even I will schedule them almost as a knee-jerk reaction to a problem. People have to talk me out of them.

As loathed as they are, it seems meetings aren’t going anywhere in the modern workplace. If popular culture is any indication, we’ll still be having meetings in the 24th century. On “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” it’s a common occurrence for Captain Picard to sternly announce over the Enterprise’s loudspeakers, “All senior staff to the observation lounge.” This means Riker, La Forge, Worf, Troi and Dr. Crusher all have to sit around a conference room table overlooking outer space as Data gives a tedious PowerPoint presentation on the challenge they face and all viable options. The others all offer comments but probably check their email on tricorders while Picard isn’t looking.

So if resistance is futile when it comes to meetings, those leading and attending them need to figure out how to make the most of them. An article published in the Wall Street Journal last month prescribes a simple solution; make them standing-room only. It profiles a tech firm that holds to the following formula for meetings:

“Employees follow strict rules: Attendance is mandatory, nonwork chitchat is kept to a minimum and, above all, everyone has to stand up.”

The article paints this as a trend primarily in tech companies but traces the practice back to military leaders in World War I. Actually the only reason I learned of the aforementioned meeting about a meeting about meetings was that in the meeting about meetings the president of the company commented that no one sat at senior staff meetings.

The conventional wisdom on meetings is that they’re a top-down problem; presidents of companies or department heads announce them and everyone underneath them groans and dutifully attends. But another article published in the Wall Street Journal last month sheds light on a different angle on meetings – apparently they’re a problem for no one more than chief executives.

The article highlights a study called the “Executive Time Use Project” conducted by a team of academics from London School of Economics and Harvard Business School. The study tracked the daily schedules of 500 CEOs across the globe. It found one sample of 65 CEOs spent roughly 18 hours of a 55-hour week in meetings. Is this too much? Lars Dalgaard, CEO of the recently acquired SuccessFactors, told WSJ it is:

“While you are sitting in a meeting, your competition is getting stuff done.”

I couldn’t agree more, but what’s the solution? Stop having meetings altogether? That’s a hard sell. In his book Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Your Meetings, or Get Out of More Meetings, author Jon Petz offers a lot of advice on meetings, including when to schedule them, how to lead them, who to invite to them and, perhaps most importantly, how to get out of them. But I think one piece of advice in particular holds the most value for all involved; speed meetings up. Petz’s ideas here are a little outlandish – make people give presentations while climbing stairs; make people drink water during the meeting and it ends when someone has to use the bathroom – but he also recommends a simple system called “two ‘n out” in which each participant in a meeting is given two minutes to provide an update on his or her status, with no interruptions, with a minute of Q&A between each update.

Scheduling and leading meetings are a large part of what talent managers do, so what techniques have you found to ensure they’re productive, adhere to an agenda and run on time? Conversely, do you have any meeting horror stories to share?