Productivity. Performance. Success

9 Golden Guidelines for a Productive Meeting

“From Burnout to Superman Productivity” Series: Tip 2

9 Golden Guidelines for a productive meeting II

Have you watched David Grady’s TED Talks “How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings?” You have to watch it!

David Grady is making a case that the world must be saved from bad and inefficient meetings. “An epidemic of bad, inefficient, overcrowded meetings is plaguing the world’s businesses — and making workers miserable.”

I was watching this very entertaining talk one late afternoon in the office. The first thought that came to my mind was…

I’m horrible!!! I’m wasting my colleagues’ time with bad meetings!

I realized that meetings were filling an increasing number of hours in my workday. I had to admit that most meetings initiated by myself were probably a waste of everyone’s time. What a productivity killer! And I was trying to write about productivity!

It was time to change!

I read everything I could find about how to run an effective meeting, how to have productive meetings, effective meeting strategies etc This is my takeaway.

 

Tip #2 – More productive meetings

Make it clear, shorten the time and track the actions!

 

 1) Clear meeting objective

Before you even think about inviting anyone to a meeting, ask yourself: What is the purpose of this meeting? Why are we having this meeting? Do we really need to meet? Can we solve this without a meeting?

If you still think you need to have a meeting, then make sure you have clear business meeting objectives and  everyone knows the objective of the meeting. This is important!

 

2) Explain how everyone can contribute to the meeting

Have you ever been to a meeting and wondered why you are there? To ensure effective team meetings, when you are inviting people to a meeting, you should be able to explain why you want them to attend and how they can contribute. This gives everyone a chance to think about the meeting in advance.

A good example comes from a story told by Ken Segall in his book Insanely Simple. In it, he gave an account of how Steve Jobs had politely asked someone to leave a meeting because he did not think she was needed in the meeting. It was a weekly meeting with Apple’s ad agency and the person was asked to attend a meeting simply because she was a part of related marketing projects.

If it’s not your meeting, ask about the objective of the meeting and how you can contribute. You can always contact the person that has sent the invitation and tell them that you don’t think you can contribute to the meeting goals and objectives and would therefore prefer to focus on other urgent tasks. If you are interested in the outcome of the meeting (but feel that your time is better spent on other tasks), you can always ask for the minutes of the meeting.

 

3) Ban technology and focus

If you have decided that a meeting is important enough for you to attend then by all means, you must give it your full attention. Put your phone on silent and focus on the meeting.

 

4) The one-quarter rule

Parkinson’s Law state that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Applied to meetings, it basically means that the meeting time would expand (or shrink!) to the time available.

How long was your last management meeting? 2 hours? Then your next meeting should be 30 minutes. This is the “one-quarter” rule. Simple right? If you have 8 people in your management team, you have just saved 12 hours!

WARNING! This is my own idea so you should probably try it first before you believe me.

 

5) Follow the agenda – Start on time and Finish on time

If you are chairing a meeting, make sure that you “Start on time and Finish on time”. If you stick to productive meeting agendas and have clear objectives, this is not as difficult as it sounds. If you still can’t do it, then try the next point.

 

6) Don’t be lazy – stand-up!!

Stand-up meetings are awesome. And I do literally mean standing up.

When I am standing up at a meeting, a very natural response for me is to want to sit down. This forces me to be more purposeful and concise about the point I want to make, just so I can end the meeting faster. It is also physically less convenient for me to try and steal a peek at my laptop or phone (to read emails, surf the net, reply a message etc) when someone else is talking. And since I can’t do anything else that is not a conspicuously distracting action (for me and for other), I focus.

According to a 1999 paper “The Effects of Stand-Up and Sit-Down Meeting Formats on Meeting Outcomes” published by University of Missouri researchers in the Journal of Applied Psychology, stand up meetings are, on average, 34% shorter than those done sitting down. Research has shown that standing up can help shorten meetings. But the best part about it is that the experiment also showed that there was a “lack of significant difference in decision quality”.

My conclusion? It’s definitely worth a try for some meetings if it saves time with no compromise in quality.

 

7) Use the whiteboard to save time

Divide the white board into two halves:

  • Write the objective and the agenda on the left side of the whiteboard before you start the meeting.
  • Then document all action points and decisions on the right side of the same white board

This will give you a great overview. After the meeting you can take a snapshot of all the action points. This is a quick way to document and distribute action items and decisions from meetings.

 

8) Always start with the purpose of the meeting

If you are the meeting facilitator (or chairperson) you must make sure that everyone understands the purpose of the meeting. Therefore, always start with the purpose!

If you can define the purpose of the meeting, you have defined success. This motives everyone and it makes it easier to focus. David Allen writes (in his awesome book Getting Things Done):

“often the only way to make a hard decision is to come back to the purpose of what you are doing.”

 

9) Track action points

Accountability is a key practice at Apple. In a Fortune feature “How Apple works: Inside the world’s biggest startup” by Adam Lashinsky, he described the following:

“The accountability mindset extends down the ranks. At Apple there is never any confusion as to who is responsible for what. Internal Applespeak even has a name for it, the “DRI,” or directly responsible individual. Often the DRI’s name will appear on an agenda for a meeting, so everybody knows who is responsible. “Any effective meeting at Apple will have an action list,” says a former employee. “Next to each action item will be the DRI.” A common phrase heard around Apple when someone is trying to learn the right contact on a project: “Who’s the DRI on that?”

Other than identifying the person responsible, it’s very important to appoint someone (could be yourself) to track all action items. There are a lot of productive meetings that achieve zero results because no one tracks or follows-up on what has been decided at the meeting. So don’t forget this!

Make people (and yourself) accountable to deliver on action lists from meetings.

 

Discussion

How much time do you spend in meetings every week? Did you include the time between meetings (eg. travel time, preparations, context switching)? Shall we say an average of 20 hours?

Of the 20 hours, how many of those meetings are unnecessary? I believe it could be up to 50% in many organizations. If so, then you could save 10 hours a week!

How much time do you “waste” in those meetings that should still take place? I believe you could save up to 75% (see “one-quarter rule”). Then that’s another another 7.5 hours saved.

From 20 hours to 2.5 hours! Imagine the number of hours that your organization can save and what we could actually do with all this time!

A final example from the life of Steve Jobs (again J). We are told in his biography by Walter Isaacson that Jobs hated “the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking” and that “People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” Perhaps we too can invest some of those freed up time in other forms of face-to-face interactions; informal but nonetheless creative, engaging and valuable.

I could be completely wrong. Let me know what you think.

Leave a Comment

2 Comments

  1. Mina Mina
    July 13, 2015    

    Great article! over the past 3.5 years, I have sat in come of the most inefficient meetings! Meetings that easily took 4 hours mostly without workable outcomes. So, I totally Understand the pain! If I were to analyse the reasons, I could summarize:
    – Many times, the objective was not clear! people didn’t know why they were invited in the first place.
    – Half of the meeting time easily was spent on tracking actions from the last month’s meeting!
    – The meeting was an avenue for socilaizing and talking about everything but work!
    – For non-productive people meeting was a way of filling up their timesheet, so the longer the better!
    – over-crowded meeting of 10-15 pax: updating all the people with irrelevant news took so much time!
    – Facilitator or chairman not sticking to the time
    – presenting not-so-much important stuff instead of focusing on the main points
    – Not using reports… for many, it was easier to sit down and listen for hours instead of reading a 2 page report. Naturally, after a while the reporting itself was abandoned. Cause nobody wanted to write them when they could present slides!

    And the list is not exhustive!

    Unfortunately, those hours are already wasted. But, I am glad that since six months ago we have been more or less following these ‘9 Golden Guidelines’ and have been much more efficient and for that, I thank you!

    • Jonas Lind Jonas Lind
      July 22, 2015    

      Thanks Mina! I believe this is very common. I have done many of those mistakes myself. :-) there is a huge potential for improvements in many organizations.

JONAS LIND is a co-founder of two IT companies, one in Sweden and one in Malaysia. He has been in the IT industry since 2000. He currently resides in Malaysia with his family.

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