14/04/2011 - 00:00

Designing fewer, faster and better meetings

14/04/2011 - 00:00

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While they’re widely considered to be unproductive and too long, meetings still take up much of a manager’s day.

OF all the slides I show in my travels around the country talking to business managers and owners about improving productivity and efficiency, the most powerful is the one highlighting what I call the ‘more with less’ challenge.

The thrust of this slide is that everyone is expected to deliver ‘more and more’ (i.e. more work, results, sales, growth, teamwork etc in the face of more competition, information and change) at the same time they are given ‘less and less’ (i.e. less people, budget and most importantly less time).You can almost see the exhaustion in the faces of the audience as they reflect on this situation.

When I ask managers what the most unproductive part of their day is, they almost universally reply ‘meetings’. ‘Too many’, ‘too long’ and ‘don’t achieve anything’ are the most common descriptions. And further, when I ask how much of their time is spent in meetings, the answer can be anything up to 80 per cent.

You would think, therefore, that if managers are time-poor and they spend so much of their time in meetings that are unproductive, they would be doing something about changing the situation. Based on my experience, rather than tackling this lost opportunity I am met with a shrug and a resigned look. Perhaps it is all too hard or we are trapped into running meetings the same way as we have always done. But is this really good enough anymore? The world has changed dramatically the past 20 years, yet meetings have not.

With this in mind, I recently completed in-depth interviews with the leaders of some of the fastest-growing companies in Australia to determine if meetings help or hinder business success. Much to my delight I found that these leaders do in fact think about and run meetings differently. Meetings in these businesses stimulate, invigorate, empower and solve real problems by harnessing many minds.

Based on this research I have listed below seven tips for re-inventing meetings.

• Hold short daily meetings. Change the metaphorical term for your meeting – use words like ‘scrum’, ‘muster’ or ‘huddle’ and encourage the meeting to move quickly by having people stand instead of sitting. Use this meeting to highlight brief achievements over the past 24 hours and run through what needs to be done next and ensure bottlenecks are removed. The daily meetings are effective because they are short (10-15 minutes), everyone is involved in at least one daily huddle and it covers key results and paradoxically ensures you have fewer meetings.

• Reduce standard meeting times. Our electronic calendars default to a set time, in many cases one hour. Reduce this to 30 to 45 minutes. Most people find that this makes no difference to the productivity of the meeting but makes a huge difference to the overall productivity, particularly when there are many meeting participants who are involved in many meetings each day.

• Have a flexible agenda. Sticking to a set agenda means that people lose focus on the real point – an outcome. Keep meetings open for questions. Remember the most valuable ideas come from your people so give them a chance to share. Explore side avenues briefly – if there seems to be a lot of interest and energy in those, then decide if the side avenue is actually where the action is or take it up separately with the protagonists and see how you can harness their enthusiasm and give them positive feedback for their contribution.

• Articulate the purpose of the meeting ahead of time. Highlight the goals and outcomes of the meetings up front. This will help employees ask relevant questions without wasting anyone’s time. Design the meetings around the set goals – including the invitation list. If someone doesn’t have to be there don’t include them. If the purpose of the meeting is purely to inform rather than to collaborate, send an email or update the intranet.

• Measure effectiveness. The amount of time people spend in meetings affects their job satisfaction. We spend a lot of our lives at work. Spending that time in meetings that waste time or ‘disempower’ can create a negative working culture. Survey meeting attendees and encourage honest and constructive criticism. Make meetings an opportunity for feedback. Ask simple questions at the end of a meeting. Do you think this is a good use of your time? Have you learned or shared anything that will help us achieve our company goals? Can you explain the purpose of this meeting? What would you suggest is a better way to get the result we’re looking for?

• Meetings reflect the culture and values of the organisation. Meetings should reflect the drive and passion of the leaders in the business. Consider this when designing meetings and in particular the management and delivery of the meetings. Meetings can create or destroy company culture.

• Have a ‘meeting-free day’ – the 20 per cent meeting rule. Create a day where there are no meetings. This can be a day where employees can catch up on projects and work that needs to be done. Alternatively, keep 20 per cent of your day free from meetings so you can keep on top of other activities.

Every manager and leader should assess every meeting invitation they get and ask themselves: ‘Do I really need to be there? Is this the best use of everyone’s time? What is another way to get the desired outcome?’ If a meeting is still the best option then assess the format of that meeting – how long does it need to be? Does everyone need to attend? What preparation can be done ahead of time to save time during the meeting? Asking these types of questions will ensure that your meetings are more effective, enjoyable and energising.

• Ken Hudson is founder of The Speed Thinking Zone, which offers a range of consulting and training products and services to boost creativity and decision-making.

 

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