Let me start by admitting that meetings are necessary…in moderation. A good way to look at meetings might be to compare them to cayenne pepper; a little bit is great and can really make flavors pop, but too much just makes your eyes water and your nose run. Is it obvious that I’m not a big fan of meetings?
REMEMBER WHEN A MEETING WAS SHORT AND SIMPLE?
I worked at a large Fortune 500 company for a number of years that had a management culture of meeting regularly. I began in management in an operations environment and the meetings were generally short, to the point and therefore, generally useful. We met, covered what needed to be covered, then went out to do the work that had to be done. This strategy worked well for this environment and is probably why I still feel to this day that meetings are something you do to help plan the work. After promoting to the administrative support side of the company, this idea of what meetings were began to change.
There, meetings took on a whole new meaning. Sure, they were still sometimes used to help plan the work that needed to be done, but they were also used to replace basic management functions. I knew one supervisor who scheduled a meeting first thing in the morning every day to make sure everyone made it to work on time. Another used the same concept in reverse to make sure no one left early without her knowledge. Still another simply wanted work updates, so he scheduled one long meeting for his entire team rather than shorter individual meetings. Sounds great for him but everyone else in the room had to sit through an hour-long meeting to give a 6 minute progress report that had little bearing on anyone else’s work.
WAIT, IT GETS WORSE
The last straw was when I was invited to a planning meeting from one of my peers. I worked it into the 3-5 other daily meetings and showed up a few minutes early. The person who called the meeting was at the head of the table scribbling something on his pad. I spoke up and the conversation went something like this:
me – “So what’s this meeting about?”
him – “Our days are getting pretty full of meetings and we need to figure out how to streamline them.”
me – “That’s a good idea. What are you proposing.”
him – “We need to figure out when we can get everyone together to talk about it.”
me – “So we’re going to decide how to get rid of some of these meetings today?”
him – “No, we need to talk about when would be the best time to get everyone together to figure it out.”
me – “So you pulled me into a meeting to plan another meeting?”
him – “Yes, but it’s important that we get this right.”
me – As I’m packing my stuff and getting up: “Let me know what you figure out at the meeting you’re planning at this meeting. A memo will be fine.”
So can we just get rid of meetings? I don’t think so. But we can take steps to make sure they are valuable for the work we do. Here’s a few things to consider:
- DON’T MEET – If the information could be distributed in an email or a memo, go for it and save the time for work. That way you still only have to communicate once and others can get up to speed as they have time.
- SET CRYSTAL CLEAR OBJECTIVES BEFORE SCHEDULING – Before you even schedule a meeting you should know exactly what you need to accomplish. Finish this sentence: “By the end of the meeting I want us to _________.
- MAKE AN AGENDA – And stick to it! Distribute the agenda to everyone attending before the meeting and let them know you’ll be honoring it. Here is a simple one that will get you started.
- GIVE BACKGROUND MATERIAL BEFOREHAND – Distribute any materials that you will use or require during the meeting well in advance and ask everyone to look it over. People will be better prepared and this will save time in processing new materials during the meeting.
- PRE-ASSIGN ACTION ITEMS WHEN POSSIBLE – If key people will be taking ownership of actions items anyway, go ahead and assign them ahead of time. This is another good way to make sure people are prepared.
- FOLLOW UP WITH WRITTEN TASKS, ASSIGNMENT AND NEXT STEPS – I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been to where the outcome was not clear. People left the meeting not really knowing what they were supposed to do or what they were responsible for. Guess what we did in those cases? Had another meeting!
A NEW APPROACH
My exit from the meeting to plan another meeting was the beginning of a new outlook for me. After that, I began to ask questions when I was invited to a meeting. What is this meeting about? What do you need to accomplish with it? What role do I play in this meeting? I began to decline a meeting here and there. And when possible, I encouraged my peers to make sure they had a plan before calling a meeting.
There were, and still are, some meetings that I go to that just don’t have much value. Some are with groups where the interaction is more important than the outcome. Others are with outside organizations to build trust and rapport. And some are just called by people higher up the food chain and I don’t have a choice. But please promise me that if you are in charge, you will make the most of meetings and use them sparingly!
What are some of your experiences with too many meetings?