Six months ago, Gregg Renfrew found herself in a common predicament. This serial entrepreneur, who sold The Wedding List to Martha Stewart in 2001, and recently started a natural beauty products company called Beautycounter, was booked in back to back meetings from 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. every day. This wasn't working for her life or her business strategy: "If you're sitting in meetings all the time, you're not executing," she says. "You're talking."
So she went on a tear to get her schedule under control, and estimates that her total meeting volume has now dropped by 40%. Indeed, she informed me that after we got off the phone, she had the hours of 3 to 6:30 p.m. completely open. How can you do the same?
First, look at root causes:
If you're in charge, try to create a culture where formal meetings aren't required to discuss things. "Spend less time scheduling meetings, and more one on one time talking to team members," Renfrew says. "You can get the same amount of information in a five-minute desk-side conversation. It doesn't have to be a meeting." Got people working from home or in other locations? "Email is your friend. A lot of that can be solved by email." Or a quick phone call, or IM. A key insight: You don't have to schedule a phone call to make one. If nothing else, don't send a lot of calendar invites. Formalizing everything creates an overly scheduled culture.
Another reason companies wind up with large and frequent meetings is that people assume their career advancement depends on talking with and being seen by their managers. Saying hello, asking people to come with you to grab a cup of coffee, and generally being accessible can solve this problem with less time overhead.
The biggest reason calendars get clogged with meetings is that everyone wants input because "they're so petrified of making bad decisions," Renfrew says. She made it clear that she did not need to sit in a meeting to discuss the viscosity of a skin cream—she's hired a great make-up artist, and "that's her job." Of course, part of letting go is that you have to be okay with some screw-ups. "If you can't allow people to make mistakes, if you're not comfortable with that as an organization, then you'll be wasting all your time in meetings."
Then look at the meetings themselves:
If nothing will change in the world as the result of a meeting, there's no real point in having one. Park interesting discussions for later—this isn't your college English class—and have someone who would have enjoyed being a meter maid in a different life keep you all on task. Look at it this way: meetings are expensive. Six people in the room costing you $50/hour is $300 for a standard meeting. You could buy the whole office lunch for that—an opportunity cost of a lot of good will.
The only reason all meetings take 30 minutes or 60 minutes is that's how your calendar is structured. Try scheduling meetings for other quantities of time: 20 minutes, 45 minutes. If you give things less time, they often take less time.
Unfortunately, office meetings sometimes take on the dynamic of getting to sit at the cool kids table in the cafeteria. Nip that in the bud. Tell people they're not coming—"not because you're not important, not because you're not on the team, but because I'd rather you spend your time doing X, and this is Y." In other words, your team members are too valuable to waste their time in the conference room discussing tangential matters. "If you eradicate that fear in people, they're happy to sit quietly at their desks and do their work," Renfrew says.