Meetings in the corporate environment are often feared and loathed. A common complaint I hear is “my day was full of back-to-back meetings and I didn’t get any real work done.” Whose fault is this? The company culture? The meeting organizers that run inefficient meetings?
Sorry, but it is your own fault.
At some point in your career you must decide: are you going to be a passive supplicant to meeting hell, or will you take charge of your own schedule and maximize the effectiveness of meetings you attend and run?
Or think of it this way: would your CEO allow their schedule to be co-opted this way? Of course not, but the logical response to this question is “of course not – she’s the CEO so she has the authority to prevent this.”
I have a very different answer to the question: She got to her position because she would never allow this to happen. Folks that become CEOs (or other C level executive roles) start to play the part earlier in their careers by refusing to be a victim and saying, when necessary, “the madness must stop.”
Thee are two key strategies you can employ to take back control of your schedule and make meetings more effective:
- Stop going to meetings where you don’t belong, or where there’s no meaningful outcome that will help the company perform better.
- Make the meetings you do attend count for something.
Let’s break this down a bit further and cover each strategy in more details.
Stop the madness and decline the invitation
First, a caveat. You aren’t going to decline a meeting invite from your boss, or an executive in your company, without some measured consideration and, most likely, a conversation with your boss. Still, for crappy meetings that are orchestrated by your direct chain of command, it is ok to make this a conversation topic in a 1×1 meeting with your boss.
So let’s focus on other meetings – most likely meetings organized by peers in your organization. Many organizers steer towards over-inclusion, wanting to make sure nobody has hurt feelings or is lacking a voice at the table. Maybe you have a technical lead working for you that is working on a difficult client bug with your customer service team. Do you trust this individual to listen effectively and help craft an action plan to solve the problem? If not, why is this person your technical lead? If so, when you get added as an attendee to a problem identification and solving meeting, politely decline and tell the organizer that your lead will be able to cover for your team.
Another sort of meeting you can likely skip is one where the only outcome is information dissemination, and you are only tangentially involved in the process. Perhaps you know someone else attending the one hour meeting that can give you a 5 minute summary over a coffee break later in the week.
Lastly, here’s a bold tactic to stop wasting time: walk out of a meeting that doesn’t start on time. If you were a critical participant in the meeting but the outcome is not urgent, propose that the meeting be rescheduled. Begin to set the tone that everyone’s time is valuable, and waiting 5 to 10 minutes to start a 30 minute meeting (which will now likely run over) is excessively wasteful. Again, use your judgment on when to play this card. As a new executive or senior manager, I would be adamant about meetings starting on time and flex some of my “role power” by leaving a meeting if the organizer was late. This means I would always be at least 2–3 minutes early. Behavior starts to adjust quickly in this environment: people will end meetings on time and start arriving to meetings early.
Make the Meetings You DO Attend Count for Something
I love how the book Death by Meeting characterizes the nature of effective meetings: they should have conflict and a resolution. Like a movie or a good story. In fact, the author gives a recipe for setting this stage in a meeting:
- Movies have conflict, meetings should as well. Meetings are boring because they lack drama.
- The most important part of the meeting is the beginning: participants should be jolted in the first 10 minutes.
- Give participants the authority to introduce new conflict into the meeting.
- Be blunt with each other, have critical conversations. But be helpful and supportive.
Weekly staff status meetings are boring, wasteful, and can be handled just as easily with an effective email. Instead, reserve these precious minutes for open tactical issues that are causing problems. Maybe do a quick round-the-table report in with each team member, giving them 60 seconds for quick status. Then find the conflict. Debate a gritty budget issue, or how the merit increase pool is small this year and how you plan to deal with this during the annual review process.
Valuable business relationships that are durable through stormy times are built through debate and conflict, not smiles and head nodding.
And it should go without saying that:
- Meetings you run will start and end on time
- People you invite will know why they are participating, what you expect from them, and what outcome is desired from the meeting.
- Decisions made and actions identified in the meeting will be clearly documented, along with a clear understanding of any deadlines or follow up dates.
A Framework for Routine Staff Meetings
The Death by Meeting book also has a nice framework for running routine staff meetings that you can apply at the CEO / executive level or as a front line manager of individual contributors.
- Daily Checkin – This is a standup meeting, like a daily scrum meeting, that should last just 5 minutes. If you lead a development team and run a daily scrum already, then you are already doing this. You are just sharing daily activities and schedules that might be relevant to the rest of the team. Be religious about running this at the same time every day, even if some team members can’t make it.
- Weekly staff – This meeting is focused on tactical issues, with no preset agenda. You start it off with a 60 second report from each participant. If your team has key metrics you track, this is the time to briefly cover this in a scorecard format.
- Monthly strategy – Believe it or not, you’ll need 2–3 hours for this meeting. This is where you need conflict and debate, and you’ll pick 1, 2, or 3 topics in advance to dive into. Maybe your team is having some nagging quality issues, or recently missed a key deadline. Or the team is being asked to take on a project that is high risk or outside the norm for the team, and folks are nervous.
- Quarterly offsite – This will likely take 1–2 days, and you might consider using a consultant. This is where you look at emerging trends, big picture things that can impact your team. Focus on work, not social activities.
Final thoughts on meeting tactics
Here’s a final grab bag list of tactics you should also think about employing to improve your meeting situation:
- Change the default meeting duration in your calendar system to 25 minutes. Most problem solving meetings can wrap up in less than half an hour, and by limiting to 25 minutes you allow for transition time to other meetings. If you must schedule an hour meeting, make it 55 minutes.
- You probably have part of the day that is best for deeper work that requires concentration. For me this is the morning, including the time when I do my morning review. Block your calendar for these periods and be very protective of this time.
- Get comfortable with asking “why is this important to the company?”
- Get comfortable introducing conflict into a meeting, speaking up, and saying the things that others are often afraid to say. Expose the elephant in the room.