In my career spanning 2 decades I have learnt that sooner or later everyone starts hating meetings. But If everyone hates them, why do they continue to exist? Meetings exist because they serve some purpose. They are meant to bring people together to make decisions and for exchanging information. Meetings are typically held when you need to solve problems, when you want people to discuss burning issues and come up with new ideas. Team building and boosting professional relationships are incidental benefits.

People hate unproductive meetings. Think of it, when you are running an unproductive meeting you are robbing attendees of their time. It’s no wonder that executives consider 67% of meetings as failures. Time is not the only thing that’s wasted, efficiency, creativity and employee morale also take a hit. Let’s look at why meetings are unproductive and how you can claim Independence from unproductive meetings.

 

Is a Meeting Even Needed?

Before scheduling a meeting, first enquire if there is a requirement for the meeting. There should be a specific goal and desired outcome. Sometimes setting aside time to think strategically can offer better solutions than those from a meeting. If it’s something that can be resolved over email, hit the send button. Or just walk by your colleague’s desk and discuss. Time saved can be used to get real work done.

Consider what would happen if you cancel the meeting. This is a good way to weed out those unproductive meetings. If your team cares about the meeting, then they would ask you to reschedule it.

Don’t Fall into the Reporting Trap

Many teams end up wasting time using the meeting as a reporting forum. They ramble on about providing insight into activities of the past. Reporting should not be the purpose of team meetings. It should be consensus building, using collective wisdom to solve a problem, charting future plans and sharing the vision for future endeavors.

  1. Here’s how you can stop status reporting in your team meetings:
  2. Past data and other reports can be shared in advance.
  3. Encourage employees to write a summary of work done and share it before the meeting.
  4. Individual problems and questions should be solved off-line before the meeting.
  5. Stakeholders should come prepared for the issues that are to be discussed and bring to attention situations where help is required.

This helps in excluding unwarranted people from meetings and discussion is limited to significant issues and concerns.

Agenda

Absence of agenda is another reason why meetings are unproductive. According to a study by Harvard, even writing the word agenda at the top of the board in a meeting room increased meeting efficiency.

Absence of agenda is not the only problem. You should prepare the agenda in advance so that attendees can come prepared, but at the same time, it should not be just a list of topics you want to cover. An agenda item should be something that requires input from attendees or regarding which a decision has to be made or something that warrants a brainstorming session. You will observe that all these agenda items will result in some form of outcome. At the end, it is the outcomes that make any meeting meaningful. Here is how you can design an effective agenda:

  1. List agenda items as questions. This helps in keeping discussions on track.
  2. While preparing the agenda, also determine who will lead the discussion for each item.
  3. Set a realistic time estimate for discussing each item and use a meeting timer to stick to the estimate.
  4. Chose topics that affect the team as a whole.

Give Back Time

Don’t fall for Parkinson’s Law. Stick to the agenda and keep watching the clock. If you can finish meetings early, don’t be afraid to do so. This will give you time to get to the next meeting on time and you can start working on the next steps. Don’t be tempted to fill the extra time with some discussion. Try running a 22-minute or 25-minute meeting instead of the usual half-an-hour meeting. This keeps everyone on their toes and acutely aware of the time.

It is similar to the urge to shop again and again at stores that offer a cash back. If you give back time, they are more likely to come back to your meeting because they know it’s not another unproductive meeting.

How Many is Too Many?

Limit the number of attendees in your meetings. This helps attendees express their opinion better and arrive at solutions and decisions faster. There are many practices that are followed in this regard. Some follow rule of seven, some 8-18-1800 rule, Jeff Bezos of Amazon follows the “2 pizza” rule. I am more inclined towards a method I came across in Running Meeting which suggests the following criteria for attendees:

  1. The key decision makers for the issues involved
  2. The ones with information and knowledge about the topics under discussion
  3. People who have a commitment to or a stake in the issues
  4. Those who need to know about the information you have to report in order to do their jobs
  5. Anyone who will be required to implement any decisions made

Get Everyone to Participate

Some attendees tend to monopolize the discussion while others tend to zone out. Both these situations lead to unproductive meetings. Improve participation by following these tips.

  1. Collaborate on the meeting content.
  2. Ask questions and encourage opinion.
  3. Use ideas that people contribute and appreciate those who speak up.

Define Action Items

Do not end a meeting without clearly defining action items, timelines and responsibilities. Often people have different interpretations of what happened during the meeting. To avoid this, record which action item has to be completed by whom and by when. Establish a follow-up mechanism to keep track of action item progress. Sometimes meetings may bring up issues that need to be discussed further, set up a separate time for follow-up.

Don’t Multitask

Multitasking can drastically reduce productivity during meetings. Often attendees check emails and social media accounts and before they even realize they have no clue about what’s being discussed. Multitasking also distracts other attendees and annoys them. When you multitask, you put your interests above those of the team, this negatively impacts meeting goals. To counter this, keep meetings as short as possible and get everyone to participate. If possible, unplug laptops and ensure that everyone is mindful of the topics and issues being discussed.

Kill the Phones

The best way to run a productive meeting is to get everyone’s attention and keep it. This becomes complicated when people use their smartphones or use their laptops for some purpose other than the issue being discussed. A simple solution would be to ask people to leave their cell phones on the desk. If they can’t, then keep a tray at the entrance and ask everyone to place their phones there. This ensures that the meeting is effective and doesn’t drag on forever.

End the Reign of Unproductive Meetings

Meetings don’t have to be a trap that people try to avoid at all costs. By sticking to an agenda, limiting attendees and eliminating sources of distraction, you can be free from unproductive meetings. Meetings can become instruments of change. This will foster better communication and integration of teamwork resulting in satisfied employees and better work/life balance. So what are you waiting for? Go ahead, make your meetings better.