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The Do’s and Don’ts of Ruthless Meetings

by Ryan Anderson

on 21 May, 2015

Meet Dilbert, the fictional main character of the comic strip, Dilbert. Dilbert is a white collar engineer hopelessly stuck in his office with incompetent managers who try, but comically fail, to bring about positive workplace structure. Out of thousands of Dilbert comics, 625 ruthlessly mock workplace meetings, citing anything from impromptu gatherings, pointless agendas, lack of participation, late or no attendance, to freak vacuum accidents and dogs leading meetings. I’m not sure how many of us have had dogs leading our meetings, or who has had freak vacuum accidents, but Dilbert has a point; meetings are frequently unproductive and a waste of time.

We’ve talked about why every second counts, how to be ruthless with your time  and meetings should be no different. None of us want to be Dilbert, caught in a cycle of terrible meetings, but our reality is comparable. In 2012, Salaray.com surveyed thousands of of people to discover how much time was being wasted during the workday. 47% of workers said their biggest waste of time was attending meetings; too many meetings, unplanned meetings, meetings without purpose or follow-up, etc. Enterprise software company Atlassian reported that the average worker spends 31 hours in unproductive meetings a month.  Americans are sitting through 11 million meetings every day, with a third of those meetings being unproductive. Think it’s just about lost time? Think again. Unproductive meetings cost $37 billion a year.

As you learn to be ruthless with your time, be ruthless with your meetings. Follow our do’s and don’ts of ruthless meetings to save your time, money, and productivity.

how to have useful meetings

DO

Have a strong facilitator who can keep the meeting on course.

I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in that have been derailed and drawn out because the moderator didn’t keep the group focused. Sometimes presenters, meeting leaders, or facilitators just don’t have the skills to keep meetings on course. Meetings drift from set agenda, run overtime, participants aren’t encouraged to engage, etc.

An effective facilitator can drastically improve your meetings. Good facilitators know the agenda and desired outcome, are familiar with group dynamics,  participant’s skills and areas of expertise, pay attention to content and process, and can tactfully, but ruthlessly, keep your meeting on track. Facilitators should be able to keep your meeting within it’s time frame, and make sure everyone walks away with action items.

You don’t have to hire professional facilitators, especially for small meetings. Pay attention to your colleagues and employees communication talents. Maybe some people are inherently talented facilitators, have learned over time, or maybe you should consider an internal facilitation training. Allow your facilitators to learn and grow while honing their techniques by rotating facilitators during meetings.

Can your meeting be productive and efficient without a facilitator? Sure, but why take the chance? Ensure your meeting is productive and efficient by using a skilled facilitator and encourage feedback from participants about how each meeting went. Read more about facilitator characteristics and skills here, and explore options of facilitation trainings as necessary.

Meeting facilitator
It’s a little late for a facilitator at this point.

Set a firm start and end time. Always start and end on time.

We’ve all sat in conference rooms impatiently waiting for meetings to begin, then agonized for an eternity waiting for meetings to end. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Meetings interrupt our day and are lethal to our productivity as it is, why are we being dragged through the proverbial hell of never-ending meetings?

First, determine how much time you realistically need for your meeting. Do you really need a full hour to go over the new office policy on walk-in clients? Studies show that the most productive meetings don’t run longer than 37.5 minutes long, with some CEO’s and companies pushing for even shorter meetings to accommodate schedules, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, who only schedules meetings for ten minutes at a time. Internationally acclaimed TED conferences limit talks to 18 minutes or less, accounting for the average 10-18 minute attention span.

Work with the facilitator to ensure that the meeting starts on time. Participants should be in your meeting, ready to engage at the scheduled start time. Have a problem with perpetual lateness in your office? Late attendees will disrupt the flow and focus of your meeting, so get serious about holding participants accountable. Post a sign on the door stating the start time of the meeting and close it. Create a “latecomer jar” in which late participants must add a dollar for every time they are late, or even for every minute they are late. This may sound brutal, but if you have a problem with regular tardiness, this will show how ruthless you are about keeping meeting times.

Even if your meeting starts a few minutes late, finish on time. Respect both the time of your colleagues and your own; everyone has work to do. No one’s day should revolve around a meeting, and no one should lose time as a result of a meeting started late. Your facilitator can account for any time lost and end your meeting at the determined time. If you find yourself in the fortunate position of finishing a meeting early, applaud your team for staying on task and get out of there.

Insist on an agenda for every meeting. Stick to it.

Meetings should always be planned in advance, as forethought and preparation is necessary. This is where your agenda comes in. An agenda defines the content, action items and desired goals of the meeting.  Agendas set a productive tone for your meeting, should identify topics for discussion, and help keep everyone focused. This will act as a reference for attendees leading up to and during the meeting.

What should be included in a good agenda? Location, date, start and end times for the meeting, who will be facilitating, who will be in attendance, a clear set of topics, objectives and timeframes for each topic. Presenter names should be included next to topics, so attendees know who will be speaking to what issue and when. Finally, an agenda should list relevant materials that participants should review prior to the meeting.

Send materials ahead of time. Expect people to prepare.

Your agenda is the primary document that should be shared with meeting participants ahead of time. This gives participants time to prepare, and saves time during the meeting itself. Sharing documents prior to meetings allows for less time listening and more time asking meaningful questions and having constructive discussions.

Do you have other documents that need to be shared? Relevant cases, presentations, memos should also be shared prior to the meeting. Provide digital copies or URL’s instead of paper documents when possible. Include explanations of which portion of the agenda each document pertains to (this can be included in the agenda itself). Don’t supply paper handouts during meetings unless absolutely necessary, as these are most likely to be tossed in the garbage.

Invite the right people.

Forget the more the merrier; smaller meetings are smarter. Keep meetings as small and simple as possible, making sure to invite only people who are essential to the meeting. Smaller groups are more focused, more motivated, lead to better group productivity, improved attitudes, higher learning and increased achievement. You’ll cut down on useless questions and redundancy.

Ken Segall, former Creative Director for Apple shares a story about how Apple co-founder and legend Steve Jobs kept his meetings ruthlessly small and simple.

“One particular day, there appeared in our midst a woman from Apple with whom I was unfamiliar. I’ll call her Lorrie. She took her seat with the rest of us as Steve breezed into the boardroom, right on time. Steve was in a sociable mood, so we chatted it up for a few minutes, and then the meeting began. “Before we start, let me just update you on a few things,” said Steve, his eyes surveying the room. “First off, let’s talk about iMac—” He stopped cold. His eyes locked on to the one thing in the room that didn’t look right. Pointing to Lorrie, he said, “Who are you?” Lorrie was a bit stunned to be called out like that, but she calmly explained that she’d been asked to attend because she was involved with some of the marketing projects we’d be discussing. Steve heard it. Processed it.  Then said “I don’t think we need you in this meeting, Lorrie. Thanks,” he said. Then, as if that diversion had never occurred—and as if Lorrie never existed—he continued with his update. She had nothing to add, so Lorrie left.”

Think that was too harsh? Jobs was just as ruthless on his own participation in meetings. After consulting President Obama on domestic business regulations, he was invited to participate in a small gathering of seven other big name CEO’s to discuss the growing and innovative tech industry. Jobs declined, saying that the meeting was too large and his participation was unnecessary. That’s some dedication to small meetings. Cut down on your own participation in meetings you’re not needed for. Not sure if you should participate in a meeting? Check out the flowchart below for guidance.

should you attend that meeting?

Give participants responsibilities for the meeting.

Breed accountability in your meetings by having participants be responsible for meeting items.

Apple is famous for creating the “D.R.I”, or “directly responsible individual. Every task and decision, even in meetings, is assigned a D.R.I. D.R.I’s names are included on agendas so all participants are familiar with who is responsible. This makes asking and answering questions about particular meeting issues easier by making a single individual responsible for relevant information.

Have Action Items.

Feel like you’ve walked out of meetings having no clue what you’re supposed to do next? Any meeting worth it’s salt (or, more literally, time) ends with action items for each participant, who then becomes the D.R.I.

A well-thought out action item includes precise information that both encourages action and give the the participant an anchor to the meeting, a reminder of what they are responsible for. Action items are given throughout the meeting and recorded in meeting minutes. If deadlines are a part of the action item, include when an item should be completed by. At the end of the meeting, the facilitator should do a quick go-around of the action items. It takes less than 30 seconds per person, and provides a final, clear understanding of what needs to be done. I can’t tell you how often an action item has been cleared up in this exercise, from highlighting a vital miscommunication to making minor edits.  Learn more about developing solid, detailed action items here.

ruthless meetings
No, this face will not save you from action items.

Face-to-face meetings instead of conference calls.

When you’re emailing or playing Candy Crush while on a conference call, you’re not alone. You’re actually in the majority; 60% of conference call participants report that they aren’t fully paying attention to conference calls, if they are paying attention at all. The world’s largest conference call company, InterCall, released data showing what most participants are doing besides paying attention, and people do nearly anything besides pay attention.

what people do during meeting calls
How do you exercise during a conference call? I’m actually impressed.

Further, the data showed calls being taken in the strangest places; in the middle of the woods, a truck stop bathroom, McDonald’s Playplace, Disney World, poolside, hospital ER, chasing their dog. No wonder no one is paying attention.

On top of a lack of focus, conference calls are notoriously painful to to sit through. Technical issues likes feedback and dropped calls, late participants interrupting meeting flow, talking over each other all take up valuable time and make calls almost comical. Schedule your meetings in person, or if you need to conference call, learn how to hold effective conference calls and include video feed. It encourages participation and focus.

DON’T

Do or encourage impromptu meetings

Impromptu meetings are huge disruptions from your regular work flow. The average worker is interrupted every three minutes: impromptu meetings with colleagues accounting for 40% of interruptions. Harris Interactive found that half of office workers prefer to communicate with co-workers through email, IM or scheduled calls to avoid impromptu meetings. Impromptu meetings are hard to recover from; they take twice as long to complete, and it takes between 16-25 minutes to return to the original task. They also eliminate vital agendas and the opportunity for meeting participants to sufficiently prepare for meetings, and walk away with action items.

impromptu meeting“Uh, Scott. Could I have a minute of your time?”

Cover material that participants should have reviewed on their own.

You send out materials ahead of time for a reason; so all participants can review and be fully prepared and engaged in your meeting. If participants don’t prepare for the meeting, maybe they don’t belong there. Too stern? Studies show that covering material during meetings that was previously shared eliminates motivation to read them in the first place. The more information you cover provided in those materials, the less your participants will read, and the less effective your meeting will be. If necessary, allow for 5-10 minutes to silently review the materials before you get started.

Restart or review the meeting for late arrivals

You want to encourage participants to arrive on time, be respectful of the meeting and not interrupt the flow when they come in. Late arrivals should come in quietly and be encouraged to follow up on missed information after the meeting, once proceedings have been closed. This helps keep your team on track and respects everyone’s time.

ruthless meetings

Allow side conversations

It’s distracting, annoying, and rude. Whether it is related to the meeting or if it is personal, it takes away from the meeting and distracts everyone in the room. If you have side conversations going on, pause briefly for relative silence. Hopefully, perpetrators will notice their behavior is on stage and politely end their conversation. Ask that participants come back to the discussion. Meeting participants should be able to focus on the issue at hand and listen to the facilitator or speaker. If follow-up needs to happen, encourage participants to do so after the meeting.

You’ve read a few Dilbert comics by now, and you’ve probably empathetically laughed, bitterly or even manically, as he suffers through endless, wasteful meetings like you have. Be ruthless with your meetings, and never walk away feeling as though you’ve wasted your precious time again.