7 steps towards better meetings

Chances are, that meetings are your number one target, if you intend to improve productivity in your company. Below are 7 steps you can take to waste less time in meetings.

1
Cancel

Virtual meeting
Before you dive into what you can do better in your next meeting, consider carefully what would happen if the next meeting didn't happen at all. You are more likely to have too many instead of too few meetings1. Use that time better, for example in casual one-on-one talks to get the same information exchanged at only a small fraction of personnel costs.

To get this out of the way: yes there are good reasons for a meeting. But:

  • Many meetings are one-sided: the one who calls for the meeting would say it was good, the rest of the participants would say it was mostly a waste of time. So, do not call for meetings, which mostly serve the purpose of keeping you (or others) informed! There are better ways to do that.
  • Often, it may feel like having a meeting could help. In the objective reality, however, you have met down another issue, instead of solving it.
  • Our world has changed, and modern, result oriented business communication is very different from group communication as it used to be. We are still to adjust. We are stuck with our campfire style of communication, while it is (for result-oriented business communication) all but one thing: obsolete.
  • There is a fair chance that the real problem you have is not the meeting itself, but more deeply routed problems in the organization form2. Not all problems are »communication problems«, there are also »organization problems« which lead to irresolvable communication challenges. Try to change these first before you try to change the communication.
  • The constant interruption through meetings has become a serious problem3.

These things suggest one single solution: cancel all your meetings! David Grady tells you in his TED talk how to do that4. And yes, start with all of them. Some forests need to burn before they can get healthy again. Otherwise you will end up talking a lot (in meetings) how you will, from now on, reduce the number and time of meetings. While only a small percentage is reduced for a short time. You may think »we cannot afford to let these meetings go«. Well, chances are that you cannot afford to have them going on.

Few organizations ever calculated, how much their meetings cost them. This is surprising, considering how tremendous this expense can be1. Try to get an idea. How should you be able to decide, if having a meeting is worth it, if you do not know the costs?

If, after some time you see where some of these meetings really are missing, what you will do is to think about alternative solutions again 5. If you cannot find one, you can ask yourself if this »missing« weighs more than the costs for a meeting. If the answer to this question is yes, and only then, you will have your next meeting. And for this meeting, one thing will be crystal clear to everyone, for the first time since a long while: the purpose of this meeting.

7 × better meetings
Cancel

2
Decide

Virtual meeting
Corporation hierarchies used to be simple. Everyone knew who'd make a decision and what will happen if you do not cooperate. This has changed. Many are involved, many are kept »in the loop«. But: are decisions also made by many? A new gray area of uncertainty around a decision has grown. Try to keep decisions out of this. Make it 100% transparent who or which group is the decision owner. In other words: deficits in your organizational structure cannot be compensated by even the best meeting practice.

In political systems of the Western world, there is more or less an agreement that a form of democracy is the best choice. In corporations, however, this is very different. Most are governed by some kind of hierarchical oligarchies. But also there a tendency has started to open up the power structures for more people. Many say this is good, some say this is bad. I say, no matter if the tendency is good or bad, the status is problematic, because it is ineffective. At the end of the day, things have to be decided and things have to be done. And we sometimes end up debating about these things instead of just doing them. For something to be dealt with effectively, it needs someone who is and feels responsible. What we often find is a mismatch between the formally assigned responsibility and the perceived and taken responsibility: person A may formally be responsible, but persons B-E also feel responsible. Or many persons are formally responsible and no one feels responsible. These are toxic situations, which you will not be able to resolve in meetings.

First, you have to bring transparency to who is responsible for what. If you feel you have already done so, but still have the problems described above, you haven't done it right. You may have concentrated too much responsibility on one person. Make sure that someone who is responsible, really owns decisions, makes them and has the power to work on the implementation. Or you may have set up a »shared, democratic responsibility« without suitable tools to implement it. You cannot just meet and ask! There is a reason why in political systems we vote anonymously. Implement it properly, have your voting system in place and make sure everyone knows where to look up decisions.

One way or the other, make sure

  • everyone knows who decides,
  • that they decide and
  • get the thing done.

Decide

3
Shrink

Virtual meeting
Don't hold meetings, where each discussed topic is only relevant for two or a small group of the participants. Make separate short meetings where only the relevant people are involved.

Once you have a transparent and working system of responsibilities, make sure that only people are together in a meeting, who share a responsibility. Do not invite people to a meeting just to have them informed, to keep them »in the loop«. Just don't. There are far better ways to to that.

Shrink

4
Prepare and follow up

Virtual meeting
Typically, when it is decided that an issue is to be discussed in a meeting, people wait what will happen in the meeting. This leaves everything important to unpredictable meeting dynamics. Make it the other way round: move as much as you can outside the meeting by thorough preparation and following up after the meeting.

After you have tried to cancel your meetings and then identified some occasions where you still cannot do without them, the next step is to decide how much of the issue at hand has to be dealt with in the meeting, and how much of it is better addressed by individuals outside the meeting. A meeting of five burns at least five times the fuel compared to working alone. So, the output efficiency must be at least five times higher, if you choose to do bring something up in a meeting. Choose well and see that whatever can be prepared before the meeting has been prepared. There is no excuse! »I didn't have the time to look up ...« So now you are waisting the time of five people for discussing what might or might not be? »I thought I'd ask you first...« So that you can then go ahead and still decide whatever you want without facing us with? No, see that the discussion in a meeting always has a healthy base. This base can also be set through one-on-one pre-meeting communication 6. The fact that you have reduced the meeting time to a few precious occasions will help you to encourage better preparation for the precious meeting time. Make due decisions transparent and in the meeting or even before (and not afterwards!)5, so you have the chance to discuss consequences.

Prepare

5
Fight

Virtual meeting
When an issue arises, the first thing we do is to meet it down. Then we get into some trouble because of that. And then we meet the resulting crisis down. What we should do, is to not meet the issue down in the first place, but to fight about it when it first surfaces. The modern meeting culture carries an atmosphere of non-aggression and agreement, so we have somewhat forgotten how to have a healthy debate.

You have now sorted out most of the meetings. The ones that are left are well prepared, people have received information beforehand. Due decisions are already drafted. When you meet up now and the decision is not particularly far reaching, all what is left to do is to coordinate the stuff that is to be done. If, however, the decision is of high consequence, make sure that all conflict that inevitably comes with this decision is discussed in the meeting. Yes, we discuss a lot already. We even synthesize problems to have something to discuss. What we rarely do, however, is to have real conflict in a healthy debate. This, we try to evade. Do not do that, but try to encourage conflict in these decision meetings 7 . To deal with conflict, and thus come to better decisions and prevent a future latent crisis, is one of the most important things that are hard to do outside a meeting.

Debate

6
Use visual thinking

Virtual meeting
Todays meetings are all about language. We underuse our visual right brain hemisphere although we have more options to put it into direct action today than ever before. It can help you to face the »groupthink«8 challenge in communication in meetings.
The language based meeting style of today uses mainly left-brain lateralized processing. This bias leads to communication about complex topics which is mainly divergent and local. In the first state of a discussion, this is exactly what is needed for comprehensive exploring. Later on, if group communication is to conclude, convergent-holistic communication is required. Right-brain biased, visual thinking is by design integrative, global, sustained, broad, vigilant and alert9. So go visual! The integration of visual thinking in meetings leads to a strong tendency for convergent communication and stimulates conclusive discussions. If you do not use veetup, use whatever is at hand. There are no drawing boards in your meeting rooms? Shame on your company!
Visual

7
Trivia

Virtual meeting
A lot of tips you can find are, in fact, trivia that should be obvious. In reality, however, these bread-and butter meeting tips seem to be so obvious, that we forget to implement them10.
Some of the meeting trivia you will frequently find are:
  • Write an agenda
  • Stick to the agenda
  • Be there in time
  • Keep in time
  • Generate a list of action items
  • Distribute a protocol

There is a lot of truth in them, and a procedural communication style has been shown to enhance meeting effectiveness11. But keep in mind that these are rather symptoms of a bad meeting culture than the cause. So it will in most cases not help forcing yourself to write an agenda, if you do not know what the purpose of the meeting is supposed to be. And to which you will not stick anyway. It is step 7, anyway, so after you have taken the others this will help you to maintain an improved meeting culture.

Trivia
René Hoffmann, 04.08.2016
1Rogelberg, S. G.; Shanock, L. R.; Scott, C. W. Wasted Time and Money in Meetings: Increasing Return on InvestmentSmall Gr. Res. 2011  
2Laloux, F.; Wilber, K. Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human ConsciousnessNelson Parker 2014  
3Jason, F. Why work doesn’t happen at workTED 2010  
4Grady, D. How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetingsTED 2013  
5Pittampalli, A. Should I Hold a Meeting Checklist2016  
6A. Allen, J.; Lehmann-Willenbrock, N.; Landowski, N.; Authors, F. Linking pre-meeting communication to meeting effectivenessJ. Manag. Psychol. 2014  p. 1064 
7Pittampalli, A. 6 Tips for Facilitating a Vigorous Debatemodernmeetingstandard.com 2016  
8Janis, I. L. Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.Oxford 1972  
9McGilchrist, I. The divided brainTED 2011  
10Geimer, J. L.; Leach, D. J.; DeSimone, J. a.; Rogelberg, S. G.; Warr, P. B. Meetings at work: Perceived effectiveness and recommended improvementsJ. Bus. Res. 2015  pp. 2015–2026 
11Lehmann-Willenbrock, N.; Allen, J. A.; Kauffeld, S. A Sequential Analysis of Procedural Meeting Communication: How Teams Facilitate Their MeetingsJ. Appl. Commun. Res. 2013  pp. 365–388