Chances are, you’re reading this article on your way to a meeting, coming out of a meeting, or (don’t look so guilty, now) during a meeting.
How did I know? The numbers were in my favor: According to the National Statistics Council, on average, 37% of employee time is spent in meetings. Other data indicates there are 11 million to 17 million business meetings each and every day.
Yes, the numbers may have been in my favor—but if you are constantly running to a meeting or from a meeting, they’re not in yours.
According to the Harvard Business Review article, "Break Your Addiction to Meetings," the textbook definition of a manager is "an individual who is in charge of a certain group of tasks or a certain subset of a company. A manager often has a staff of people who report to him or her." In contrast, the modern translation of a manager is "an individual who races through the halls in a frantic attempt to make the next meeting on time while also answering e-mails on his or her mobile device."
It does to humorist Dave Barry who famously commented, "If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be "meetings." Even management guru Peter Drucker said, "Meetings are the symptom of bad organization."
So let’s bottom-line it: most of our meetings suck our personal time and energy, and cost our organizations significantly in terms of productivity. And there are far too many of them. Meetings are a given, but they take more than they give.
So what would it take to get ourselves organized so that our meetings are meaningful?
Donald Kirkpatrick, Professor Emeritus of the University of Wisconsin and a past president of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), offers three criteria for productive meetings.
Criteria 1: The meeting should meet its objectives.
This implies that your meeting actually has objectives, that they are appropriate objectives for a meeting and known, preferably in advance, to the participants. Productive meetings must serve a useful purpose. For anyone who has ever attended a meeting simply to rubber-stamp a decision that has already been made or because "we always have our staff meetings on Tuesdays at 10," then you know what it’s like to be in an objectiveless meeting. When possible, the work of the meeting should be done in the meeting, so many meetings that don’t have a working component probably don’t need to happen.
Strategy: Object of the objectiveless meeting
The next time you receive an Outlook meeting invitation, consider that invite the beginning of the meeting—and start doing your homework. If it’s murky to you what the purpose of the meeting is, ask the organizer to make it crystal clear what the meeting is supposed to accomplish, and (if you’re feeling bold) what you uniquely bring to the meeting. Ask if the meeting’s purpose is to generate ideas, to make a decision, to get buy-in and create ownership, to answer questions about an upcoming initiative . . . or if the goal is to complain (rarely done best in a group setting), to sign off on something that’s already been decided (a waste of time and dignity), or when an email or phone call would suffice (costing everyone productivity).
If there is a match between the goals of the meeting and what you can bring to it, then consider yourself lucky. If not, then suggest that this meeting may not be the best use of your—or anyone else’s—time, and ask to take a pass.
Criteria 2: The meeting should be completed in the minimum amount of time possible.
After "today’s your last day, everyone," the next worst thing you can hear in a meeting is, "Well, we still have a little time left on the agenda so why don’t we use that time to [fill in the blank]." If the objectives of the meeting have been accomplished—even if there is still time left—the meeting should be over. Let’s face it: Have you ever been annoyed that your meeting wrapped up early? I didn’t think so. To paraphrase Moses, "Let your people go!"
Strategy: Make time-bound outcomes the focus of your agenda.
If you’re the one hosting the meeting, create an agenda that not only has start and end times but also has times associated with the start and end of each agenda item. In addition, your agenda items should begin with an active verb (like your resume) so that the group knows what outcome you are trying to achieve in that time. Consider the difference between "Amy’s proposal" and "Review and vote on Amy’s proposal: 10:15-10:30."
Which is more likely to keep the folks in your meeting on track and focused?
What do you do if you’re not running the meeting and didn’t have a hand in creating the agenda? Speak up and ask, "What do we need to accomplish on this item?" before each part of the meeting starts. Hopefully, if you do that a few times, the meeting facilitator will catch on and begin to articulate it him or herself. (And if you make enough of a pain in the neck of yourself, maybe you’ll stop being invited all together. How terrible would that be, really?)
Criteria 3: A meeting is effective if the participants feel satisfied.
Now that’s a tricky one, especially if we believe that the definition of a satisfied participant is one who got his own way in the meeting. And let’s be honest: While that sounds like toddler behavior, chances are we are in meetings with some folks who can seem pretty emotionally immature ("Mine!," "Now!," "I was here first!," "No, YOU be quiet!"). So how can we meet the satisfaction needs of a diverse group a meeting participants, some (read: most) of whom may not want to be there to begin with?
Strategy: Give people opportunities to put something in and take something out
If we expand our definition and expectation of what "participant satisfaction" means, as Kirkpatrick suggests, it can be much simpler to create opportunities to get those needs met. Most people who attend a meeting have two objectives: to benefit (to get something out of it) and to contribute (to put something into it). When we design and facilitate the meeting to get at least one if not both of those criteria for satisfaction met, then participants are much more likely to feel that this was a good use of their time and energy. Before the meeting, ask attendees what they’d like to get out of the meeting. This could be knowledge, a platform, new skills, face time, etc. You might also suggest your ideas of what you think the benefits may be for their attendance. In addition, let them know why you think they have a unique contribution to make—a great perspective, inside information, excellent decision-making skills, etc. And then, of course, ask them for any additional ideas about what they’d like to contribute. (Not the facilitator? Then offer this up to him or her framed as "a way to make our meetings even more effective".)
During the meeting, make good on your commitments. If you offered someone a chance to contribute, make sure that happens. If you sold the meeting on its benefits to a participant, check in to see if he or she is reaping them. You don’t need to stop the whole meeting, but a simple, "Jon, I just wanted to check in with you since we haven’t heard from you in a while" may be all it takes.
Finally, don’t save evaluations for training sessions, staff retreats, or performance reviews. Want to know if your team is getting something out of (and putting something into) your meetings? Ask them.
But please, promise me this: Don’t call a meeting just to ask them how they feel about meetings!
[Image: Flickr user Prateek Rungta]