Meetings are a big productivity killer that you can control by working together better. Studies have shown the cost of meetings, you probably spend a week per month in meetings, and you can calculate your own cost of meetings. The issue isn't just where you spend your team's time, but how you spend it. Vinnie Mirchandani, following my post in Forbes on Email Hell, points out the productivity problem isn't just email.
The other big productivity killer in corporations is meetings. I am constantly surprised to see too many of my client employees just go from meeting to meeting - then, of course come back to their desks to handle the deluge of email!
Like email, improving meeting productivity requires more than personal tactics. Through leadership, the behavior of the group must change. This distinction is critical in our current climate. Companies need to make do with less -- and doing so cannot be done through personal productivity gains -- but with efficient and effective coordination and collaboration of teams, the organization as a whole, and how partners and customers intersect.
Changing meetings is difficult because nowhere does company culture manifest itself, if not define itself, than through meetings. The meeting culture of some companies puts a premium on presentation, or cooperation to consensus, or conflict as creativity. Research has even shown that most meetings are status contests. Beyond this theater as a disclaimer, here is some practical advice to make meetings more effective and efficient:
Do I need to be there?
Without a criteria for who should attend meetings, the attendee list tends to grow. Not only does having more people in the meeting effect the productivity of the meeting, but it keeps people from working on other things. Put responsibility for this criteria upon the person calling the meeting, as they have the greatest odds of abusing it.
At the beginning of every meeting, ensure that someone is taking notes and how they will be shared. Better yet, have an established practice for how this is done in every meeting. Sharing notes can help decrease the attendee list for efficiency sake. How notes are taken can make the group more effective:
- Consider having the note taker project while taking notes. This clarifies and gains support for what was said and what is agreed to.
- Take notes in a wiki to make it easy to link to supporting materials, pass editing control to others, share while taking and makes the notes searchable and discoverable alongside other knowledge.
- Don't aim for meeting minutes, encourage summarization, but try to capture as much as possible. The great thing about meeting notes is that they carry with them the context of an event. Small things said may mean a lot in the future. For example, someone might contribute an alternative point of view that wasn't part of what might be the summary, but when someone finds it outside the meeting they can contact the person to further explore it.
- Focus on next steps. Conclude meetings with agreement on what was learned and the action items.
One tendency I have seen is to constrict note sharing for sake of politics. Sometimes this necessary, but the instinct for control tends to hamper productivity. For example, if division heads need to meet on an HR issue and craft a message for broader consumption, sometimes the meeting owner controls the notes. Always share notes with meeting attendees and have a protocol for how they will be shared further.
What's the goal?
A meeting without a clear goal shouldn't exist. Goals help focus conversation, but also ensure time is being spent towards the right outcome.
The most unproductive outcome of a meeting is having another meeting. Usually because of unclear goal setting. Unfortunately, meetings are autopoietic, meaning they self-propagate. The only time a meeting should lead to another meeting is if that is the up front goal (let's plan the annual sales kickoff, or let's divide the strategic planning we need to accomplish into these three meetings).
What's the agenda?
The structure of an agenda should support accomplish the goal of the meeting. One challenge is trying to limit agenda items while everyone has their own agendas and need to be heared. One of the quickest produtivity gains available is to perform agenda setting in a wiki beforehand. Be sure you bring people's attention to the agenda as it changes. Link to supporting materials so everyone arrives at the meeting not only understanding the goal, but understands the subject matter behind each agenda item.
Will this ever end?
Always have a firm start time and end time for meetings. Notice that when meetings have a firm end time, and you get close to it, suddenly the meeting becomes more productive? Consider how time as a constraint can provide focus for conversation. Consider trying that hour long meeting in 30 minutes.
Before a meeting, consider if a subgroup of attendees can better discuss and decide or recommend a course of action. During a meeting recognize when the conversation really is for a subset of attendees, and if time allows, table the conversation until the subgroup can work it out.
One of the best practices businessfolk can adapt from agile software development methodologies is the standup meeting. Have the team meet daily for 5-15 minutes to synch on status. Sometimes this is done litterally standing up, which gives even the most diligent of soldiers a stake in ending the meeting before they pass out. Each team member takes a turn updating everyone, perhaps taking clarifying questions, but not using the forum for protracted discussion.
The beauty of the standup meeting is that everyone comes prepared to update others. However, this preparation doesn't come for free. You need to allow the team members time to prepare for the meeting.
One evolution I've witnessed at Socialtext is how they increasingly shared their status updates in the wiki before the standup meeting, and then it became convention for everyone to read the updates before the meeting. In any meeting format, status updates are better replaced with coordinating conversations, unblocking issues and gaining a shared understanding of priorities.
BAHM: Big Hairy Audacious Meetings
So far, I've provided general considerations for making meetings more productive for groups. But what are some bold things you can try with your team? For the more adventurous teams, here are some Big Hair Audacious Meeting methods to consider:
- Barcamp Your Retreat -- At Socialtext, half of our employees are remote, so our face to face meetings really matter when we have them. Initially we did like all companies do, lots of time preparing the perfect agenda, with lots to cover. Once we tried a Barcamp-style open space methodology for the first afternoon. People liked it so much, we threw away the structured agenda for the week and let it self-organize. At the end of the week, everyone revelled in the experience, but we also reviewed the original agenda and found we covered every single item.
- Turn it Off or Turn it On -- Companies have gone to the extreme in adapting to having connectivity available during meetings. Some have banned laptops and blackberries during meetings, which I think completely misses the point. Doing email in meetings is bad, but the cause is usually a culture of unproductive email and meetings. Having laptops augment meetings, with wikis, backchannels and the ability to search, is good with the right focus. But you need to make people conscious of the issue. Try three things:
- During specific portions of a meeting, or certain kinds of meetings, the organizer needs to demand all laptops shut for 100% focus on the people in the room.
- Try meetings for a week where you specifically ask people to bring their laptops and look to augment the meeting with social software and search. Afterwards, ask people how this made your team more productive, or not.
- Try meetings for a week where you specifically ban everything but pen, paper and people. Afterwards, ask people how it helped or hurt productivity -- but more importantly talk about if time and effectiveness is being lost because people are not valuing attention.
- Standups -- I used standup meetings as an illustration of how time is best use for status reporting, but do try this format with your team.
- Make Every Meeting a Party -- I always quote Pete Kaminski's insight that "time spent face to face is too valuable for work" to make the point that teams need to socialize. If you don't afford the time to help your team be unproductive, they will make meetings unproductive.
- Turn Recurring Meetings into Processes -- survey the meeting topics of your organization and you may find recurring meetings that are the result of broken business processes. Fix the process or lackthereof.
- Get Back to One-on-Ones -- short one-to-one meetings can be incredibly productive. They even help decrease email volume. Consider the patterns with your team, and if you can carve out the time for one-on-one meetings by having less group meetings.
- No Meeting Monday -- this is the obvious audacious one. Consider banning meetings on Monday, not just because it is a good day for people to collect themselves and orient how meetings should be conducted for the rest of the week. But it will raise the conciousness of meeting cost. As with email, knowing it is an issue we are all responsible for is half the battle.
In summary, I don't take the extreme position that meetings are wholly unproductive, and the issue isn't the cost of meetings, but how to increase their return by working together better. In future posts I hope to address how to make meetings more effective and efficient with partners and customers.