The Wall Street Journal recently published the results of a study (from London School of Economics and Harvard Business School) on how chief executives spend their time. It turns out they spend about a third of their days in meetings. There is no measure of the quality of those meetings.
Rachel Emma Silverman, who authored the article, goes on to describe six ways to improve meetings. Her prescriptions are familiar but, in my view, they don’t get to the real point of creating more effective meetings. Specifically, she recommends that leaders:
- Have an agenda and stick to it.
- Block half the time you usually do for meetings and keep strict time.
- Don’t tolerate late starts.
- Consider banning mobiles or laptops from meetings .. to prevent participants from zoning out.
- Consider holding a stand-up meeting, which research shows may cut meeting length by as much as a third.
- If there are follow-up or action items, make it crystal clear who should be doing what and who is accountable.
In my work with leaders, I find that these prescriptions are unlikely to change the true cost-effectiveness of time spent in meetings.
Leaders run meetings to get work done.
Leadership requires conversations with others, to plan and coordinate actions and to make decisions. These conversations generally occur in what we refer to as meetings. Some of these conversations may be casual or in the moment, but for those that are planned to be “meetings,” recommendations like Silverman’s do little to improve the return on time invested (i.e., spent) in meetings.
Agenda. Simply having an agenda and sicking to it is hardly enough. Most agendas are not suited to the purpose. They usually consist of a list of topics to be covered and lack two things in particular:
- Topics are not defined in a way that makes the real nature of the work to be done in the meeting clear. For example, an agenda item like “communication planning” does little to inform attendees of the focus of the discussion. It would be much better if it were stated in terms of the work to be done, for example, “to develop a better means of communicating quarterly results to our staff so they can see its relevance to their responsibilities.” I suggest you try to think of tasks not topics in planning agendas.
- Second, time is not budgeted relative to the scope of work expected to complete some task. Too often, I see “5 minutes” listed for some point on an agenda that is to require input from those present. However, such a time budget is unrealistic if you expect more than a couple people to provide any input. On the other hand, there are many items that end up on agendas that should never be there at all. For example, many items listed as “updates” can be communicated more efficiently in other ways than in a meeting.
Time. Prescriptions such as cutting meeting time in half miss the point. Half the time lowers the time spent in meetings, but does nothing to address whether any of this time is well spent. If everyone leaves the meeting without alignment or commitment to the outcomes reached, or if the meeting has to be ended before the group has had enough time to reach a conclusion, then the meeting may be shorter but it is no more effective. Meeting time should be budgeted according to the requirements of the various meeting tasks on the agenda. There are many ways to manage meeting time productively and efficiently. All the options for doing this begin with a clear understanding of the meeting task, and none have to do with arbitrarily setting a meeting time limit (or choosing to stand rather than sit).
Lateness and Mobile Phones. Behaviors like habitual tardiness, use of cell phones and multi-tasking in meetings are symptoms of other problems with the conduct of the meeting. Rather than deal with the symptoms, address underlying factors like:
- Is this the right group of participants?
- Is everyone needed for this work now?
- Is the discussion structured to engage everyone, even if the group is a larger one? Beyond 8 people it becomes hard for people to get air-time unless specific steps are taken to engage all.
- Does everyone understand their role in any decision?
Follow-up. Finally, there should be follow-up actions and assignments if the meeting is to produce real results. (If there aren’t any action items, you may want to ask yourself why you were meeting in the first place). The weakness here is that many leaders fail to give enough attention to structuring the timing and nature of follow-up reviews of planned actions. It is important to conduct such reviews within 30-40 days of the original meeting. It is also critical that the review be framed as a reflection on the learning from the actions taken, successful or not, rather than as a review or compliance session. Failure to conduct an appropriately timed or structured follow-up session leads to defensive behaviors and erodes the possibility of achieving the intended benefits of the original meeting.
Successful leaders have also been sharing some of their own prescriptions for more effective meetings. I wrote about three of these leaders’ ideas in Leading Successful Meetings: What Do Good Leaders Share? For more on my recommendations for structuring more cost-effective meetings, see Choices and Tools at www.meetingforresults.com.