Here's an elephant in the meeting room that no one ever discusses: Meetings are hugely expensive.
During the next meeting you attend, add up the hourly cost of every person in the conference room. Then imagine, that you're writing the check for that meeting. If the money came out of your pocket, would you have the meeting? Has the meeting been worth that amount? Who's going to pay for it? And would you have any meetings at all?
Then factor in the opportunity cost for what every person in the room could be achieving instead of listening to John from the Dev Team talk about groundbreaking innovations in a code update somewhere in the stack, or Suzy from HR having another of her monologs during the roundup.
Any meeting that won't directly generate revenue or cost savings, either in the form of a key decision or a concrete plan of action, is likely a complete waste of money.
And I would bet that a lot of people and organizations don't have a clue! One thing is the cost of all the resources and time spent on planning the meeting. Now, this is just about the meeting itself.
So, what can you do about it?
Well, of course, it's easy to be a Monday quarterback and tell if the meeting was worth it when the meeting is over.
But to prevent having too many of these highly costly meetings going forward, here's what to look for and what you can do about it.
1. If the word "Information" is part of the agenda, be aware!
No agenda should include the words information, recap or review.
The only agenda you should have is one bullet point: "Set product launch date," or "Select software developer for database redesign," or... or something that requires a group to debate, discuss and decide.
Which, I bet, is rare.
And don't come with that "but we need buy-in" excuse. Meetings don't create buy-in. Great ideas create buy-in. Great projects create buy-in. Tell me what we're doing, explain why we're doing it, help me understand why it's important that we do it... and if I'm a good employee, I'll buy in. Of course. A great project or idea that aligns with your company's objectives make a buy-in.
As for information? Share it before the meeting. If the group needs to make a decision during a meeting, shouldn't they have the information they need to make that decision ahead of time, so they have a chance to be prepared? Send documents, reports, a small youtube video, etc., to attendees in advance, and voila: People arrive informed, and can now take a decision based on the same information level.
Holding a meeting to share information wastes the entire group's time... and the company's money. Think about it next time you attend a meeting: Is this is meeting to take a decision, or is it only to share information that could have been shared without having an actual meeting?
2. Don't go with the standard default meeting length
Calendars are usually formatted in 30- or 60-minute chunks. Also, we're programmed to expect things to start and end at certain times, like, 11:30 am or 8 pm or 5:30 pm. We expect round numbers, and we are more comfortable that way.
So a meeting that will start at 9 am is usually scheduled to run until 9.30 am or 10 am, even if ten minutes is all that is required to make a decision. What always happens? You fill the time. When was the last time a meeting you attended broke up early and you actually, actively ended it before the meeting was finished in your calendar?
Meeting time is like buying a bigger house. No matter how much space you have, eventually you fill it with stuff. Now, be honest: Do you need all that space/time?
Instead, decide ahead of time how long a meeting should last solely by what you need to accomplish. Then schedule the time accordingly to that agenda when you book the meeting in your meeting management system. Put on a specific amount of time at each bullet point. Tell everyone the meeting will end on time, no matter what. If you only need ten minutes, schedule ten minutes. And stick to it. Period. And don't forget... if you only need ten minutes, do you need to hold the meeting?
Next time you are in a meeting an excellent session and the host says: "OK, we're running out of time here. We only have 10 minutes left, and we need to get going with this project," think about how productive and focussed you then are, and how many decisions you can take.
There is a strange thing about meetings - You're always bringing your A-game in the end, if the session is running out, and you need to take that decision. Now, what would happen if a meeting started that way, and we should try to limit our self only to have 15 minutes meetings? I'm confident people would meet up prepared and ready!
3. Start on time! Don't allow people to be late.
It happens all the time. A few individuals get to the meeting early. They start chatting. The room fills. It's time to start, but a few people haven't arrived.
So you wait. And wait a little longer. And perhaps you run out of coffee, so you're going to refill it since Bill hasn't arrived yet…
When it's time to start, start. Start every meeting on time. Do you think it's okay for hourly employees to get to work at 8 a.m. and then goof around for the first ten minutes of the workday?
Of course not, but when you let a meeting start late, that's exactly what you're doing.
Some people are lazy when it comes morning meeting management and meeting culture. When it's time to start, start! You waste other people's time and the company's money.
4. Stay focused and on track! Don't allow people to "think out loud."
If anyone in a meeting says, "I'm just thinking out loud here ... " they should be cut off. Immediately.
Why? They should already have their thoughts together. They should show up with concrete ideas that are based on the information you provided ahead of time. Right? You did send that whitepaper and summary before the meeting with the agenda, didn't you?
Don't let people muse aloud about half-baked concepts they want to share just because they feel they need to participate or want to seem smart.
If it's a brainstorming session, fine. Of course! Then it's more than OK. Otherwise, expect people to come prepared with fully formed thoughts about the particular topic that are addressed. Anyone who doesn't, didn't take the time to prepare and shouldn't be allowed to participate when any pop-up thoughts.
Again, think about it next time you attend a meeting that does have a clear agenda, a time line, and a purpose. Did the meeting go as expected, or did James from Sales all of sudden make a hostile takeover at the meeting by "thinking out loud," and from there everyone seemed to be more interested in sharing ideas and discussing that concept than taking a decision which was the reason for the meeting?
5. Make sure to establish accountability
Great meetings result in decisions. That's why we meet.
But a decision isn't a decision if it is never carried it out or executed.
Next time you're in a meeting make sure to establish what, who, and when.
Never let ownership be fuzzy or unclear. An action item without a clear owner (and perhaps a timeline) is like an orphan: It's someone else's responsibility. Which means it quickly becomes no one's responsibility. And then what happens? A wasted meeting wasted time and wasted money!
6. A list of action items is all you need - A lengthy recap is often never necessary.
The only recap of a meeting you need is a list of action items. State what was decided, what will be done, who is responsible for doing it, when it will be done... and nothing else - that's good meeting management! Try out for yourself and see how simple it is.
Never include items like, "Discussed the possibility of redesigning handover processes between departmental responsibilities."
If all you did at the meeting was discuss reorganization, then 1) shame on you for not making a decision (Why did you meet then?), and 2) including a "discussion" in a meeting recap implies that group discussions that don't result in decisions are worthwhile and perfectly OK.
When others see that memo, guess what happens? The next meeting they have will be a discussion about something since it's allowed, right?
Don't give general discussions credibility by including them in a meeting recap. People might start thinking general discussions have value.
7. If the goal of the meeting is to improve "team cohesion," then don't have a meeting. Go out and get things done!
Team members do need to work well together to be productive, have a meaningful work life and bring value to the overall objectives. But they don't need to hang out or "bond" to work well together. Especially not in a meeting.
Great business relationships are created when people work together toward a common goal and aim for the same vision. And, in that process towards that, can count on one another to do their part, meet commitments, deliver on time, are accountable for deliverables, and get things done.
In short, great relationships happen when you produce tangible outcomes and achieve meaningful goals. Not before - after. It's the "getting things done to meet or goals" part that brings great teams together. Not sitting in a meeting room do discuss how it could be done. Or how it should have been done...
Don't mistake interpersonal relationships for productive relationships. Accomplishing hard things is the best way to improve team chemistry - not sitting in a conference room.
Not all meetings are created equal and should be treated the same way
Well, not all meetings are created equal, and of course, some meetings have to be informative, take time, and include a large number of attendees to have a discussion about a certain thing.
According to user statistics and data based on Microsoft Office 365, 47% of meeting time is unproductive based on the fact that for 47% of meetings scheduled time, people are multitasking, writing emails or focusing on other things, then attending and focusing on the meeting they're in. 47%!
A small thing like haveing standing meetings, or just have the meeting in a less format setting like a huddle in a modern workspace, can get the attendees more focused and thereby save time and money.
I'm confident there's room for improvement! So next time you're in a meeting that you don't believe bring any value at all, people are multitasking, arriving late, don't send out and agenda, make a 3-page meeting minutes (including the discussion you had - Not the decision you took), go write a check for the amount of time spent on that meeting and see who's going to pay for it.
I think that will bring focus to the problem.