Not All Meetings Are Equal. Here’s How To Make Yours Ultra Productive
March 2, 2020
Why do so many meetings suck? It turns out that, despite humans’ natural gifts for collaboration, we have some systemic bad habits when it comes to gathering for work purposes.
The good news is we do have it in us to make meetings ultra productive.
The bad news is, every meeting minute we waste is more expensive than we think. Last year, a study by a scheduling company called Doodle estimated that poorly organized business meetings were responsible for $399 billion in lost productivity in the US, and $58 billion in the UK.
In the Doodle study, nearly half of people said that poorly organized meetings prevented them from getting work done. A huge percent said their meetings were confusing and leading to unclear actions, lack of focus, and weakening company outcomes.
It would be easy to say that the reason for all this meeting waste is laziness. But I think the culprit is actually the opposite: hyper-productivity. We schedule meetings because we want to be more productive—to force ourselves to sit down and address problems or make decisions.
Technologies like email and Slack have made it possible to fill up every corner of our workday with reactionary tasks. So now many people use meetings as a forcing function to do the important, but less urgent tasks that our hectic work cultures crowd out.
The cost of bad meetings
Ineffective meetings give a team a false sense of progress and create a culture of procrastination. While some managers may think scheduling a meeting to “deal” with something is progress, too many meetings result in expensive conversations that lead to (sigh…) more meetings.
The answer isn’t to blindly make our meetings more efficient, which can result in negative effects on inclusion. If our meetings are dictated by time, it can create an environment where people only pay attention to those who speak up quickly.
This leads to more influence for people in positions of power, people who feel safer to express themselves because they belong in some sort of majority, or people with naturally more extroverted personalities.
And this can build a false sense of whose voice matters on a team.
In the Doodle study, a third of respondents said that irrelevant people in meetings slowed things down or caused problems. This at best creates boredom and higher costs, and at worst creates animosity and degrades faith in the team’s leadership.
Fortunately, we can avoid all of these side effects with a few tweaks to the way we think about meetings.
How to do meetings right, in 4 simple steps
To make meetings a profitable use of your time, follow these four steps.
STEP 1: Choose the appropriate type of gathering
The most costly meeting mistake is choosing the wrong meeting for the job at hand. Often the mistake is choosing a meeting versus some other form of communication. If you’re trying to share information, for example, a meeting may be both costly and ineffective. If you’re trying to solve a problem, simply gathering a group of people to solve it together may not be the ideal way to go.
The following flowchart breaks down the most effective way to roll based on your meeting objective:
STEP 2: “Cast” the ideal participants
The people in your meeting will make or break both your costs and effectiveness. My preferred way of building teams is to think of it as “casting,” like a movie director does with a film. Rather than defaulting to the same group of people you usually include, gather team members for a given project or problem on a case-by-case basis. Each situation requires different voices and perspectives.
Use these guidelines to “cast” the ideal group of participants:
Only include people who will be willing to participate fully, and who you plan on actively including. Don’t include people who will just sit there.
When relevant, include a variety of different viewpoints (a.k.a. cognitive diversity).
When relevant, include representatives among anyone who will be impacted by decisions made in the meeting.
Remember, every additional person is additional cost, so be thoughtful about the benefits of having each person there.
STEP 3: Prepare in order to get full participation
The worst meetings are those in which people are not prepared to fully participate. This often boils down to not having enough information and/or time to think about the topic before entering the room. Important decisions and discussions are best served when thought through beforehand, not spur-of-the-moment. Prepare by making sure:
Everybody has all information they need to actively contribute
Everybody has enough time to think things through before the meeting
The meeting has a clear purpose (whether you use a strict agenda or not, without a clear purpose, you’re rolling the dice on effectiveness and cost)
Preparation is also critical for inclusion efforts. People with different and valuable perspectives will have different levels of comfort with participating in important ad-hoc discussions—and many will be more inclined to hold back if they haven’t had time to prepare and are unsure of their thinking. Give people time and information so you can tap into the full potential of the meeting and its participants.
STEP 4: Facilitate the meeting for productive participation
When you are leading the meeting, you need to take responsibility for three things above all else:
Keep the meeting on track, so it stays true to its purpose. This means identifying when the discussion needs to be adjusted, and putting pins in things that are outside of the meeting’s purpose but require follow-up in another setting, at another time.
Keep the meeting in a healthy zone of cognitive friction. This means prodding everyone’s participation, encouraging healthy dissent when relevant, and exploring different points of view—while monitoring that things do not become personal (or inappropriate), and pulling things back when needed.
Keep track of follow-up items. And follow up! Often the enemy of productive meetings is time—either dragging the meeting out after it’s accomplished its purpose, or running out of time and not resolving what needs to be done. A great meeting facilitator will resist the instinct to simply schedule another meeting when time runs out, and instead will assess what individual or 1-on-1 follow-up work can be done so that the next meeting can be more productive—or perhaps unnecessary!
Great Meetings Make The Most Of Their Core Asset: People
A great meeting allows us to see each other as humans—to engage productively when we can look each other in the eye. It’s a lot easier to be dismissive or nasty to someone when they’re an avatar in a chat, or a disembodied voice on a conference call.
Instead of complaining about how so many meetings suck, let’s create the right kinds of meetings and run them better. And most of all, let’s celebrate the amazing potential we humans have when we put our heads together.
Learn more about how to lead teams in my course Dream Teams.
Other courses you may be interested in:
Being an Effective Team Member with Daisy Lovelace
Meeting Facilitation with Prakash Raman
Teamwork Foundations with Chris Croft