Simple shortcuts to business success #13: Re-think meetings

Why meetings are the worst

There are two types of people in this world – those who love meetings and those who loathe them. I’m firmly in the ‘loathe’ category because I value productivity and efficiency and there is nothing that kills these two things quite like meetings.

Want some numbers on that?

A 2013 report by Atlassian estimated that US businesses were wasting $37 billion a year on pointless meetings and stated that the average employee spends over 31 hours a month in unnecessary meetings. What were people doing in there?

  • 91% daydreamed
  • 45% felt overwhelmed
  • 73% did other work
  • 39% fell asleep
  • 47% felt the meeting was a complete waste of time

I don’t know anyone in business who has time available to be wasted these days. We all have more work to do than hours available so what can we do to make the whole meetings thing a little less painful? I have three suggestions:

1. Reduce the number of meetings in your life

  • Never meet to have a discussion that could be had via email or over the phone.
  • Never meet to share information that has already been documented and can be read.
  • Never meet in person if the meeting could be held via Skype.

2. Make the meetings you do attend more productive

  • The person running the meeting must be able to keep a firm handle on things. They need to make sound judgement calls for when to let people talk something out, and when to nip something in the bud to keep the meeting moving along.
  • There must always be an agenda and this should be circulated before the meeting. Even if someone asks you to meet them for coffee so they can ‘get your thoughts on something’ – ask them to send through some talking points.
  • Ruthlessly stick to the agenda – if the conversation goes off-topic, no matter how useful that conversation might be, tell the people involved to set up their own meeting to discuss it at another time.
  • Never include something in a meeting that could be discussed more fruitfully in another way. For example in our Swish Design meetings we used to get each person to go through and state the jobs they were currently working on and for whom. This was information that could have been compiled ahead of the meeting and quickly scanned by everyone ahead of the meeting. Instead, we’d spend a painful 30-40 minutes listening to each person state every job they were working on, comment on certain jobs … and then watch things go tangential as those comments usually sparked unrelated conversation.
  • Always set a firm start and finish time. How many 10 am meetings officially start at 10.15am by the time everyone wanders in after grabbing a coffee or going to the toilet? How many meetings go for hours because an undefined finish time gives people license to labour points and discuss things ad infinitum? 
  • At the end of every meeting, each person should be very clear on any action items they have as a result of the meeting.
  • Have shorter more frequent meetings as opposed to leaving meetings to once a month or quarter. The longer the time between meetings, the more likely they are to go for hours because people feel if they don’t get their idea or discussion point in, it will be weeks or even months before they’re able to be heard.

3. Re-think the sit-down meeting

  • Have walking meetings if there are only two of you. These are more productive (because walking stimulates our brains), less awkward (because you’re not sitting directly across a table looking into each other’s eyes), and more efficient because there is a definite start and end time to it.
  • Have standing meetings if there is a large group of you. This works for short, sharp meetings and helps ensure everyone stays ruthlessly on point. No one likes standing for longer than they have to.


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