A typical business meeting
Executives, managers and employees spend up to 23 hours per week in meetings (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2017). When we break this figure down, it turns out that about 15 % of an organization’s total time is spent on meetings, 35 % of middle managers’ time and up to 50 % of executives’ time. That’s an incredible lot.
If these meetings were value-added, effective and pleasant, this would not be a problem. But they aren’t. About one-third, half or even two-third of them are considered a failure and waste of time. This makes them the #1 time waster in the office. Accordingly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the most popular article of McKinsey’s 2019 top 10 is about how to plan better meetings. So, how to better start the new year than with deciding to plan better meetings?
The problem with many meetings is that they are habitual: we meet because that’s what we do and we meet in the way we do because that’s what we have always done. But the world we live in is not habitual. It is dynamic, asking for different responses all the time. This means that meetings can’t be habitual either. Different topics ask for different people to contribute, for different meeting lengths and different outcomes. Therefore, meetings need to be tailored to what they are organized for.
Along the lines of the McKinsey article and the research I conducted for Part 2 of The Strategy Handbook on strategy execution, there are simple ways to make meetings much more efficient and burdensome by tailoring them in advance. While preparing them, you should consider the following five tips:
Tip 1: Be clear about what to talk about
If there is nothing to talk about, there is no need for a meeting. Therefore, it should be clear for every meeting what its topics and purpose are. This makes them focused and goal-oriented rather than habitual and talking-oriented. Make sure there is an agenda that is sent out in advance so that everyone knows what the purpose of the meeting is. Also, make sure you stick to this agenda and don’t end up in broad or endless discussions.
Tip 2: Invite who is needed, no more and no less
Everyone necessary for making a decision or taking action regarding the topic and purpose of the meeting should be there. No more and no less. Additional people who are not needed will lose interest and spend their time checking emails, making the meeting a waste of time for them. On the other hand, if important people that should be there are not present, the meeting will remain inconclusive, making the meeting a waste of time for everybody. So, resist the temptation to always meet with the entire team, to invite more people “just to be sure” or to have a meeting anyway even though key persons are not there.
Tip 3: Plan meetings at the right time
The timing of meetings is important. If held too early, not all the necessary information might be available, making all decisions provisional and leading to a lot of repetition during next meetings. On the other hand, if held too late, much of the usefulness of the meeting is lost since decisions have already been made elsewhere. So, time well and plan meetings ahead at the time when they are needed, not simply when it is convenient.
Tip 4: Make clear how long a meeting lasts
Some meetings go on and on—by schedule or by bad time-keeping. Partly this is the result of not following the previous three tips. If these are followed, the chances of such meetings decrease significantly. But time keeping is also something that deserves separate attention. Therefore, decide upfront how long a meeting will last and stick to it. Manage time well, and preferably don’t plan meetings longer than one hour because you will lose focus and pace.
Tip 5: End with action
Many meetings are ineffective because it is not clear what the consequences are. People have talked for an hour and then leave the meeting to do other stuff. But meetings are usually not organized for the sake of meeting. Of course, they have a social role as well. But most of them are organized to make decisions about something and to take action outside the meeting. Therefore, make sure every meeting ends with clear action points with a date and designate someone to be responsible.
It is primarily the meeting organizer’s job to make sure that these tips are followed. However, it is everyone’s responsibility that this way of having meetings becomes the normal way of working in the organization.