Avoid the Meeting Circus

In April, the Harvard Business Review found that a weekly executive meeting at one large company ate up 300,000 hours a year in collective employee time. That’s a lot of clowning around. 

But here’s the thing: Only 7,000 of those hours were spent by the executives in the actual meeting. The rest, according to the article, were used in preparatory meetings involving the different teams responsible for doing the work discussed in said executive meeting.

In essence, the company had established a work infrastructure around one meeting that amounted to a sizable chunk of time — which some management experts say might have been more productive had it not been dedicated to meetings.

“Meetings are not the point of going to work,” said Alison Kemp, CEO of U.K.-based interpersonal skills consulting firm Switchvision. “They’re just one means of many to an end.”

Meetings are synonymous with work. But over the years, meetings have been known to morph into a corporate nuisance, eating up precious working time and adding unnecessary complexity to projects and processes.

To be sure, the act of gathering employees in a room and talking about things isn’t necessarily a total waste. For starters, meetings provide a chance for lower-level employees to contribute and prove their worth. “It’s an opportunity for someone to shine, to show how they can present, how they can be a logical business person,” said Victor Lipman, president of Howling Wolf Management Training in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

If leadership skills are lacking in the lower ranks, well-executed meetings also provide an example for what a good manager does. Dave Mattson, CEO of training organization Sandler Training based in Owings Mills, Maryland, said employees emulate their leaders, so being on-target and crisp in a meeting can help the rest of the staff apply the same to their jobs outside of the meeting room.

Efficient meetings move a company forward and help employees understand what’s expected of them.In that light, meetings can also boost morale and loyalty by showing that management has respect for its employees’ time, Mattson said.

But when meetings are inefficient, the opposite can hold true. “It’s demoralizing for an employee to go to a meeting and realize that we’re circling the airport without landing gear,” Mattson said.

What’s more, a single inefficient meeting can be used to generalize that a whole company is stuck in the air without hopes of reaching its destination. Even those not directly involved can hear talk of it around the proverbial water cooler and end up dreading their next team meeting, even if it’s completely unrelated.

Perhaps the most noticeable effect of poorly run meetings is on productivity. “The meter is running,” Lipman said. “Those people’s valuable time is being used when it could be used for other projects.”

A Bigger Tent

Not every function or problem deserves a meeting. Lipman said meetings are called too frequently when there might be other means of communication that accomplish the same goals, such as an email or phone call.

In other cases, some engage better in one-on-one situations, Kemp said. She explained that her work puts her in contact with technical experts who tend to stay quiet during large group discussions.

By having one-on-one meetings, “you can have a much better, more honest discussion than you can by shoving a whole load of people in a room for ages,” she said.

Still, sometimes more than a few people have to convene to talk through a problem. In that case, efficiency depends on having a well-tailored guest list. This doesn’t just mean making sure whoever is sitting in the room has a reason to be there.

Jessica Pryce-Jones, co-CEO of U.K-based workplace consultancy firm iOpener Institute and co-author of “Running Great Meetings and Workshops for Dummies,” said managers should recruit a sidekick to keep an eye on the time and manage the technical aspects such as presentation slides or phone attendees.

Kemp took this idea another step further, explaining that advocates can help change a group’s mentality to make it more productive. “If two people agree on everything, one of them is not needed,” she said. “People have come to me and said one of the problems with their team is nobody will speak up. They all sit there like nodding dogs, and it’s really annoying.”

To get people more comfortable with disagreeing, Kemp suggested before the meeting, a leader request one of the attendees be a devil’s advocate. Having someone challenge the conventional wisdom can start discussions that go beyond “I agree.” For organizations made up of naysayers, the same can be done with an “angel’s advocate,” which Kemp said can give people the courage to bring their ideas to the table because there will be someone to support them.

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Beyond the Big Top

Sending out invitations to the right people is just the beginning. Including an agenda keeps meetings on target, validates the decision to gather everyone and helps attendees prepare, which can make a meeting go smoother.

Agendas should cover which topics will be discussed in a meeting and what the end goals are, such as what decisions must be made. “People will better follow and get results because you’re giving them the tools by looking to the future and talk about the steps to get there,” said Laura Schwartz, former director of events for the White House. To her, the most efficient meetings don’t necessarily schedule everything by the hour. 

Instead, they work toward an objective.

That’s not to say time isn’t an important factor when creating a meeting plan. A solid agenda includes a time limit, which could be as low as 15 minutes, and breaks down how much time is allotted for each topic of discussion. These efforts limit how much time employees spend away from their individual assignments.

But if agendas are such a pivotal part of keeping meeting succinct, why don’t more managers use them?

“Oftentimes, it’s almost shoot first, ask questions later,” Lipman of Howling Wolf said. “You want to set up the meeting, but you’re not really sure what you’re doing. … By spending more time on the upfront, you can save time on the back end.”

Simply making and distributing an agenda isn’t enough. During a meeting, it’s up to the leader to avoid being derailed by off-topic conversations. Mattson of Sandler Training said mitigate distractions by reviewing the agenda at the beginning. If anything comes up that would be better suited for a different meeting, put it aside. This could even include an item on the agenda that seemed important before the meeting but no longer has a place in the conversation.

Then there’s the task of making sure meeting participants are engaged in the task at hand. Boosting the engagement of those in attendance relies on the creativity of the meeting’s coordinator. Schwartz referred to President Abraham Lincoln’s habit of starting Cabinet meetings with a joke to lighten the mood in an otherwise dreary time.

“That serves a good purpose for all of us, especially in this era where we’re picking up, dropping off, checking email all at the same time,” Schwartz said. “It really behooves an organization to start with something creative like a joke, a quote, a song or even musical chairs.”

Also, don’t discount the power of levity and silliness. Playing musical chairs, for instance, can get attendees to switch seats — something Kemp said helps shake up how attendees interact with one another. Other ways to get people to sit in different places includes reconfiguring the furniture in the room.

Laura Schwartz, White House events director under the Clinton administration, discusses planning meetings that contribute to the performance success of a team.

That approach worked at Pixar Animation Studios. As Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios, wrote in his book “Creativity, Inc.,” it took a new table and the elimination of place cards to make the creative team’s meetings more productive. The meeting’s original design — placing top performers in the middle and using place cards so management knew who was present — was for the leaders’ benefit. Not until they noticed no one else participating did one director dramatically dispose of the cards, with the team eventually deciding to buy a bigger conference table.

For others, sitting might not be the answer. Standing meetings tend to last 10 minutes, Kemp said, and just taking away the chairs helps improve the speed of decision-making. If standing isn’t enough, try walking — not tightrope walking — just ordinary walking.

Schwartz, now a public speaker and author, said her experience working in the White House as director of continues to be a proponent for walking meetings.

Walking meetings appear to be gaining in popularity. In April, Stanford University published a study showing walking increases creative output by 60 percent both during and for six to eight minutes afterward. Environment didn’t matter; a lap around the block or around the office had the same effect.

But taking that first seat, stand or step requires an organization to open its mind and listen to its employees. “People know what they don’t like,” Kemp said. “They have an instinct for what works, but they won’t do it because they don’t want to be the one to break convention — and yet everybody is begging them to.”

Certain types of employees make meetings ineffective. Read the sidebar that accompanies this feature to learn who they are and how to stop them.