Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy!
Death By Meetings
Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010
Meeting. The mere mention of the word can illicit a sense of loathing in anyone who has ever worked in an office. Companies have gone overboard with meetings – scheduling meetings to plan a meeting about a meeting. Meetings are often too long and can feel absolutely pointless. That being said, meetings are not wholly unnecessary: meetings bring employees together for important conversations and allow multiple people to bring their perspectives to the table at one time. If meetings are necessary, how then do we prevent death by meetings?
First, you have to fully understand how much your meetings are costing you. An employee’s time is a limited resource. Just like making strategic decisions about how to use its financial resources, a company also has to make strategic decisions about how it uses an employee’s time. When a company has a habit of scheduling meeting after meeting without a strong purpose, or inviting people to meetings who do not really need to be there, it is wasting its own resources (and concurrently driving employees nuts). How much are meetings truly costing you? Use the Meeting Cost Clock available from EffectiveMeetings.com to give you a clear picture of the price tag attached to each meeting. Simply input the number of participants and their average hourly wage and start the clock. Project the Meeting Cost Clock on the wall for a few meetings, and you will most likely be appalled at how fast the costs add up.
After you have a clear picture of how much meetings are costing you, stop yourself before sending out your next meeting invitation. Before the invitations to a meeting even go out, time should be spent thinking about whether the meeting needs to be held at all. Could you share the information via e-mail and be just as effective? If you truly need to have a meeting, think about who actually needs to be there. Invitations to meetings are often treated like invitations to weddings – you feel like you have to invite everyone so that no one feels snubbed. Instead, think about what the goal of the meeting is and what attendees need to be there to ensure that goal is met. While there are some meetings with a level of importance that could make an uninvited employee feel left out, most of the time employees will not be insulted if you tell them they do not have to add yet another meeting to their schedule.
Another problem with meetings is that they often turn into run away trains – running way behind schedule and going off topic. To tackle this problem, ideally a meeting request should never be sent without a clear agenda and a specific amount of time allotted for each agenda item. During each meeting someone should be assigned to keep track of time or you can use a giant timer that is visible to everyone so that attendees get used to staying on track. You can also employ some more radical tactics to keep meetings short: Seth Godin suggests holding meetings without chairs – when everyone is standing up, they tend to get to the point faster.
To keep side tracking in meetings to a minimum, you can designate a place on the wall or use a flip chart as a “parking lot” and provide everyone with sticky notes to keep track of ideas, discussions items, and questions that are triggered by the meeting but are not related to the subject being discussed. These sticky notes are posted in the “parking lot” and can be covered at the very end of the meeting or in follow-up emails.
And finally, do what you can to help people think in meetings and make meetings fun, especially for the long ones. Feed people. Give them something to drink. And if the meetings are largely focused on generating ideas, give them tools – like playdough, markers, and sketchpads, to help them do that.
If the purpose of a meeting is to actually get something done, to move an organization forward, then the effort should be aligned around making that happen…or no meeting should be taking place at all.