Work Smart: Unconventional Cures for Meeting-itis

When you're on your deathbed, you're never going to say you wish you'd attended more meetings. But at work, meetings are a necessary evil. Sometimes the only way to make a decision or convey information is to get people together to talk. But too many organizations suffer from meeting-itis: poorly-run and inefficient meetings that go on too long, happen too often and include more attendees than need to be there. When you calculate the true cost in person hours, you quickly see how meetings waste more time than they save. An hour-long meeting with 10 attendees actually costs an organization 10 person hours, an entire workday worth of productivity.

Keeping meetings brief, small, and productive isn't easy. But a few companies use unconventional techniques to make it work.

At Google, large meetings stay on track with the help of a four-foot-tall timer. There, meeting agendas are highly structured and allocate a certain amount of time to each topic. The timer is a simple program running on a computer and projected onto the wall so it's visible to all. It counts down the amount of time left for a particular agenda item or the entire meeting.

At a company in Los Angeles where meetings often ran too long, one team member suggested a radical way to solve the problem: get rid of all the chairs in the conference room. Instead, meeting attendees had to stand the whole time--and as a result, they kept conversations brief and to the point.

Some meetings go too long because attendees are distracted, checking their BlackBerries or using a laptop. Design firm Adaptive Path runs what they call "topless" meetings, where attendees check their handheld devices and laptops at the door, so that the agenda is everyone's singular focus.

The key to an efficient meeting is a strong leader. Their job is to keep things on track, not be afraid to cut off long-winded discussions, and be willing to end things early once the business is done. Brief and well-run meetings create an organizational culture of respect for everyone's time.

If you're an attendee and not the meeting leader, there's less you can do to cure meeting-itis, but here are some pointless meeting survival tips. First, ask for an agenda beforehand and confirm that you absolutely must attend. Second, carry a small paper notebook with you to the meeting. A former coworker of mine, who says she spends way too much time in pointless meetings, zones out by reviewing lists she keeps in her notebook and jotting down ideas that are unrelated work. At least that way you made a pointless meeting somewhat productive.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: Work Smart: How to Write a To-Do List

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17 Comments

  • David Molden

    On a course some years back I told the story of how one director burnt his boardroom table to change old meeting habits and the next day the CEO of a high street chain gave his away to a charity.

    Another CEO stopped a meeting in full flow to say 'I'm not enjoying this - how do you all feel?' After some silence the other attendees agreed and so they took a day out in the woods to get to the root of the problems. Within 3 months productivity increased by 15%.

    David Molden
    www.quadrant1.com

  • hilary laffer

    This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart and I enjoyed reading what others had to say. Without oversimplifying it, in my experience, good meetings take a little work, discipline and regular evaluation. And go with whatever works...a lean and specific agenda, process structures like scrum or tools, etc. I wish more companies would take the time to consider what's working with their meetings and what isn't, rather than just accepting the status quo. I think it is all about trying different things and then landing on some mix that works for the team/organization.

    One nuance that I have found to be useful is when the meeting organizer tells the participants specifically what preparation is required for the meeting. I know it may sound obvious, but I've seen it help participants focus on their area of expertise. Participants know what it expected of them and are less likely to venture into other topics.

    Hilary Laffer
    http://fluentc.com/

  • Kelly Fryer

    Gina, usually i like your work but i think you're dead wrong here. Your advice is basically: if you're in charge of the meeting, treat everyone like children. And, if you're not, act like one.

    I think we can do better.

    Meetings don't have to be "necessary evils." They are the best, regular opportunities we have to ignite passion, deepen commitment, and unleash creativity in our organizations.

    There's no question too many meetings are boring and too few leaders know how to facilitate good ones. But it IS possible to run meetings that matter.

    http://www.arenewalenterprise....

    Sorry to disagree with you so strongly this time. I really do admire your work! Keep on keeping on!

  • Kenny Sturgeon

    After years of facilitating meetings, I believe they are sometimes important,can be productive,and possibly even fun, if whoever “owns” the meeting keeps a few guidelines in mind:

    3 reasons for holding meetings:

    1. To make decisions
    2. Team Building/Alignment
    3. Info sharing

    If the purpose is clear- the meeting will be more effective.

    These tips can enhance the quality and relevance of a meeting:

    1. Invite the right people
    2. Keep it short
    3. Outlaw “Bad Powerpoint”
    4. Be clear about the purpose (outcome/objective) of the meeting
    5. Have clear meeting roles

    Nice Article!
    Kenny Sturgeon
    http://TeamTrainingUnlimited.c...

  • andy_mcf

    Most of these time-wasting meetings are actually caused by 2 factors. 1) Poorly aligned teams where people have redundant and overlapping responsibilities and 2) Poorly communicated goals. Solve these 2 and meetings will regain their relevance and focus. http://pivotpointsolutions.net

  • Alana Cates

    Meetings are inevitable when multiple stakeholders need to come together on a decision, but quickly lose their value when conversations are hijacked. Dominating voices are not the only culprit. Typical of human nature, we delve too far into some aspects while equally important considerations go completely unnoticed. Managing the flow of conversations for effective collaboration and equal input is difficult without a framework or tool to track the relevant areas for discussion. Think of the “Jeopardy” game board that allows players to focus on the squares and not when and how to interject into the conversation. These tools allow for quicker more effective meetings, better decisions and increased buy-in. http://accelprofitsolutions.co...

  • Marshall Makstein

    I’ll be unconventional and suggest a good PowerPoint deck can make a very effective meeting. Yes, I said a good PowerPoint deck, not the usual crap people throw up on a screen and use as their speech prompter. If a meeting facilitator/speaker takes the time to plan and develop a PowerPoint (or keynote) deck that visually supports their meeting communication objectives, it can be a great help in having a successful and time efficient meeting. Unfortunately, PowerPoint has become the easy scapegoat for a “bad” meeting and rarely gets the credit it deserves for being a terrific tool when used properly to keep an audience’s attention focused on the important information to be shared at a meeting. It has been proven that people remember more when they see and hear it. It seems almost childish to take people’s chairs away to get them to be more time efficient. What’s next, meet in a pool and make meeting attendee’s tread water?

  • Michael Herman

    I would love to see ideas like this come more into play.

    I've been able to have some freedom w/ meeting locations in the past in office settings, but did it more in the few teaching opportunities that have come my way.

    My favorite time was in Ukraine, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. I was teaching there over the summer and the student were so amazed that I would take us all across the street to go have class in the park. It was such a foreign idea to them. It was as if they not only had never thought about having a class outside, but then to introduce the idea to the class and then immediately do it blew a few of their minds. They loved it!

  • Mark Nemier

    Meetings with no chairs?
    I experienced this technique first hand.
    Meetings lasted 45 to 90 minutes . . . standing!!
    Nice idea on paper. Passionate people can endure hours!!
    Twenty years later I still hate those meetings.

  • Chris Reich

    Most often heard complaint about meetings:

    Nothing gets gone while I have a ton of other things that NEED doing.

    Nothing gets decided. Nobody WILL make the decision.

    We never stay on point.

    Can't these be easily fixed? I think so. More meetings, shorter duration. ALWAYS have a time limit. And leave knowing when the next meeting will be.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Loraine Antrim

    Communication is the heart of all meetings. All the advice thus far is spot on, but I would add two other ways to keep meetings and attendees focused. The first is to guarantee input. The meeting organizer might call out individuals by name (especially important for those attending by phone) and ask a specific question. Keeps people on target and off the blackberies. Second, think in tweet time. Topics and responses can be limited to a set amount of time (2-3 minutes). The key is to clearly communicate guidelines and then stick to them. Loraine Antrim, Core Ideas Communication

    --
    Loraine Antrim, Co-founding Partner
    Core Ideas Communication
    "We Create Smartmouths®"

  • Leistikow Mary Lou

    Cut down meeting time by 1/3, come up with innovative solutions and, maybe most important, listen to each other. You can achieve this by using the Six Thinking Hats, developed by dr. Edward de Bono. Please contact me if you want to know more!
    marylou@qreacom.eu

  • Leistikow Mary Lou

    Cut down meeting time by 1/3, come up with innovative solutions and, maybe most important, listen to each other. You can achieve this by using the Six Thinking Hats, developed by dr. Edward de Bono. Please contact me if you want to know more!
    marylou@qreacom.eu

  • Mats Lindholm

    As a Swede we know that IKEA has a policy for meetings with no chairs. It is kind och strange when you visit a IKEA-office to see no chairs at all in the conferencerooms.

  • Jim Phelps

    You can also drive a meeting, even as an attendee, by pushing on "What needs to be done, by whom, by when?" Once that is decided, you ask for it to be put on a future agenda item for a check in. Chatting about a problem or issue changes into an action item and the agenda can move on.

  • David Molden

    Sound advice, yet there is a highly effective and very simple method all NLP Practitioners learn:

    First of all agree personal outcomes up front (its surprising how many meetings are still led by a chairman's agenda - boring and ineffective!).

    Then use any of the following frames where appropriate:

    Outcome (does this relate to our outcomes stated at the beginning?)
    Backtrack (what was previously said about this?)
    Relevance (is this pertinent?)
    Evidence (what data/facts back up your claim?)
    Comparison (how does this compare with (x)?)
    What if? (let's just imagine if we could)
    Discovery (maybe we need some creative input here)
    Ecology (how might this decision affect the wider system?)

    This is the one minute facilitator's toolkit.

    David Molden

    www.quadrant1.com

  • Mark Nemier

    Meetings with no chairs?
    I experienced this technique first hand.
    Meetings lasted 45 to 90 minutes . . . standing!!
    Nice idea on paper.
    Twenty years later I still hate those meetings.