Meetings are a necessary evil. I’ve endured so many meetings over the years that seemed to meander with no purpose. That being said, there are times when the best solution is to bring all of the right people together to facilitate a decision, or just update a group of people on status. In too many situations, meetings are used as a way to defer or avoid making, a decision which wastes a lot of time.
Even when the meetings are necessary, they are frequently run inefficiently by the meeting organizer, the attendees, or both.
Here are my five rules for meetings. There are a lot more than five, but I believe that if everyone followed just these five rules, the business world would be a better place.
Arrive on time. Promptness is a sign of respect. Meeting tardiness is a huge waste of an organization’s money and resources. It wastes the collective time of everyone in the meeting. As an example, when I was single and wanted to travel to another city, it would cost me one airline ticket. When I got married, it doubled to the cost of two tickets. I now have three kids. To take that same trip, I have to calculate the cost of the flight times five.
That’s how it works with meetings. When you show up ten minutes late, it’s not just ten minutes. It is ten minutes times the number of people in the meeting. If there are six people waiting for you, you’ve just wasted a collective hour. Assume that you have an average of 10 meetings per week (two per day) and you show up 10 minutes late to each of them. Assuming further, an average of six attendees at each meeting and 50 work weeks per year, you will waste 500 collective hours of time for the year. The fully-loaded cost of an average employee (salary, benefits, overhead costs, etc.) is about $100/hour. Based on those assumptions, you will have wasted $50,000 of your employer’s money just by being late.
Once you decide to show up on time, try to avoid wasting meeting time with too much small talk and holding distracting side conversations.
Invite only the necessary people. Some organizations are so political that people are afraid to NOT invite some people to a meeting. They fear that person will get their feathers ruffled for being left out (“Why wasn’t I invited to that meeting?”) The safer solution is to just get a larger conference room and invite everyone. A better alternative to this is to invite certain people as optional. Make it clear to them that they are being invited so they are aware of the meeting. Let them know that meeting minutes will be distributed to everyone. This may insure a smaller, more productive meeting.
Define the objective of the meeting clearly. Before scheduling any meeting, ask yourself, “What is the final outcome I want that justifies taking up the collective time of these people?” Is a decision required? Are the right people invited to obtain that decision? If anyone declines the meeting, is it still worth having? If the objective was to reach a decision and none is reached, you’ve just wasted a lot of time.
If you are just providing a status update, are you providing the appropriate amount of detail? Status meetings should inform people of progress and present issues that need decisions made by the status recipients. If the information you provide is too detailed or not detailed enough to allow them to make decisions on the issues, you’re wasting everybody’s time.
Call out squirrels. In the movie “Up”, the dogs stopped everything when a squirrel was sighted and focused all attention on it. This happens in meetings too. Whether you are running the meeting or you are a meeting attendee, stick to the agenda. If you want to make a point and you know it’s later in the meeting, write it down and bring it up then. If you have something to discuss that is not on the agenda, wait until the end of the meeting if there is time. Make sure it applies to all attendees or else excuse the ones to which it doesn’t apply.
As the meeting organizer, you are responsible not only to stay on topic, but to make sure others do so. If someone brings up a point that is not on the agenda, it’s your job to politely ask them to put it on the parking lot or take it off-line. Don’t allow people to hijack your meeting.
The easiest way to do that is to write an agenda before the meeting. Define the meeting objective and have bullet points for each discussion item. If someone goes off topic, politely reign them back in.
Provide meeting minutes. It’s a waste of time to bring all of these people together to make a decision if you don’t document it. If ten people attend a meeting and make a decision, a week later, everyone may remember the outcome differently. When you write up meeting minutes that document the decisions made and sent it to all attendees (and anyone else that may be interested in the decision) you get implied agreement.
Meeting minutes should not be a transcript of the meeting. The minutes should be a summary that takes no more than 10-15 minutes to type. In place of typing a separate document, I often add notes to the agenda document in a different color to denote decisions and discussion points.
Meetings are sort of like food. Most people consume far too much and have become overweight in their collective conversation. Organizations need to go on a meeting diet, taking in fewer meetings to make for healthier productivity. Perhaps someone could invent gastric bypass surgery for meetings where people would get sick if they attend too many meetings.
For more information, check out Career Management for Mentors
I welcome your questions and comments.