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Even the most useful and productive meetings consume too much time and accomplish too little. And the truth is that most meetings are often wasteful, disorganized, and unfocused. Unresolved issues from meetings often languish. And when meetings are used for decision-making, work is often postponed awaiting a time when everyone can meet. Hence the question: meet or don’t meet? The answer is a simple one. If the meeting is just to deliver information – a one-way information dump – don’t meet! Put the info in a concise, clear memo and send it to everyone to read.
But if there is a need for interaction in order to move the ball forward, discussion to vet ideas and agree on desired outcomes, then there is simply no substitute for direct communication to engender cooperation, collaboration, creativity, connection and a common understanding amongst a group or team. Meetings – whether online or old-fashioned face-to-face interaction – allow for many minds to exchange or challenge ideas, zero-in on a best course of action and create a go-forward plan. It can also be useful in some settings to garner decisions. But beware, by their very nature, meetings can easily go awry. So here are some things to consider and approaches taken by some of the world’s largest and most successful companies that might help make your meetings more useful and effective.
Before the Meeting
1. Decide who should attend the meeting.
Meetings are too often seen as team events in which every team member has to attend. When it comes to meeting attendees, think ‘less is more’. Meetings are not about feeling “included”. They are for collaboration and communication about specific work. Only those involved need attend. The fewer voices in a room, the easier it is to vet ideas, find consensus, and zero in on a course of action.
Amazon, Google, Apple and many other highly-successful companies have one thing in common when it comes to meeting strategy. They all keep meetings small. Steve Jobs was known for kicking people out of meetings if they didn’t have a reason for being there. Even the great and powerful Amazon – with over a half million employees worldwide – has simple rule of thumb for figuring out how many participants should be invited to any meeting: two pizzas must be able to feed every person in the room. If we calculate that a large pizza feeds about 4-5 people, no meeting should have more than 8-10 in attendance.
2. Prepare an agenda.
Everyone has been to a meeting in which there is a general sense of topic and a vague idea of the goal. An hour later, the meeting is still dragging on with no end in sight. To avoid that, the meeting organizer should prepare a written agenda in advance. It can either be shared with the rest of the group in advance or at the meeting. Indicate key points and a goal. Also indicate an estimated amount of time for the meeting. Agendas keep meetings focused and effective.
Before even setting a meeting, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has managers ask themselves if the meeting to be held is to “make a decision or to have a discussion.” This helps define the intention for the meeting. Meeting participants get meeting material ahead of the meeting so that they can prep at their own pace.
3. Schedule meeting time in small increments.
Not every meeting requires a conference table, a dozen people, and a big block of time. Sometimes, micro meetings can deliver the same communication and decision-making ability of a longer meeting. Again, think “less is more.” Marissa Mayer, Google’s former vice-president of search products, kept her meeting schedule from becoming a bottleneck in the decision-making pipeline by scheduling five and 10-minute meetings, instead of arbitrary 30-minute or 60-minute meetings. This ensured that team members didn’t have to wait weeks for an opening in her calendar. Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to meeting time.
During the Meeting
1. Assign a Note Keeper.
A note keeper notes who attended and what was covered at the meeting. The note keeper also ensures other team members who could not attend remain updated on what was discussed and decided.
2. Get everyone focused from the start.
At the start of a meeting is when there is the greatest danger of the meeting going astray. It is important for the meeting leader to set the tone and clearly communicate the goal, items and purpose of the meeting. This is a good time to go over the Agenda. At Amazon, execs take this a step further. They start meetings by silently reading a “meeting narrative” for 30 minutes. This ensures meeting participants are focused and that the meeting has a clear purpose. The narrative consists of:
- Context of meeting or questions
- Possible approaches to the questions
- The meeting participant’s approach
- What’s the next step?
3. Keep control and focus
After a good start, the next step is to keep the meeting moving forward on track. If someone raises an interesting point that does not relate to the agenda, it is important to cut that off. A polite way of doing that is to say something like: “Thank you for that point, Michael. However, participating in that conference goes beyond the purpose of this meeting. Let me write down that item after the meeting so I can include it in the meeting notes and send it out by email so we can explore that point at the right time.”
If there is an overly chatty manager or coworker, it is important to remind everyone that there are a certain number of items to discuss in the scheduled time and that it is important to stay on track to address those items in the time allocated.
4. Make sure ideas and decisions are defensible and data-driven.
Meeting decisions are often a by-product of office politics rather than carefully researched and data-supported insights. More often than not, an idea is adopted not because of its merits but because the person pitching it has management support or the idea is less expensive or easier to implement. Little, if any, thought is put into determining if it is not just a viable solution, but the best solution, for the situation. Instead, ideas pitched at meeting should be supported by data that will hold up to scrutiny.
At Google, every decision is backed by data. Decisions must be tied to hard numbers. For example, one idea might win over another because it performed 20% better than the other idea in the last three sales campaigns.
At Apple, Steve Jobs challenged meeting attendees to defend ideas they proposed. Why? Challenging each meeting participant’s ideas ensures that ideas are thought through and based on a solid foundation. Not only does this help people to do their best work, but it also keeps meeting participants engaged throughout the meeting.
5. Assign responsibility for meeting results.
At the end of a meeting, every meeting decision / goal is assigned to a meeting participant, who is then responsible for implementation of the decision or work. That person keeps track of the decision and reports back at subsequent meetings. This way, no part of a meeting decision or project gets overlooked. For this to be effective, it is important to define what is expected of the responsible person and if that person alone is responsible for taking action on the decision.
6. Use a clock to keep time.
If time is money, then it makes sense to be keenly aware of how much time is spent, especially on meetings known to be time-wasters. The best way to do this is to establish how much time has been allocated for the meeting in advance (as indicated above) and then have a physical clock that counts down indicating time remaining. Google does this in many meetings. This reminds participants that the meeting is time-limited and keeps everyone highly focused on the meeting agenda and goals.
Stay tuned next week where we look at what should happen after the meeting.
Quote of the Week
“As a leader, you must consistently drive effective communication. Meetings must be deliberate and intentional – your organizational rhythm should value purpose over habit and effectiveness over efficiency.” Chris Fussell
© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.