Practical strategies for better meetings
Real leaders show how to stop wasting time in meetings
Leaders set the tone and can change meeting culture in an organisation. Reducing the time
employees will waste or be less productive as they try to work on something else during a meeting.
Eric Bosco is CEO at advertising company Choicestream, and takes a radical approach to keep meetings moving, arming a team member with a nerf gun to shoot anyone who over runs their allotted time.
Bosco’s approach might be too extreme for many, but he does share a fundamental concern about the usefulness and productivity of meetings with many other business leaders.
Shifting the corporate meeting culture
As the new head of Google, Larry Page immediately sent an email to all staff entitled How to conduct meetings effectively. Essentially it said, you probably do not need to have a meeting.
Page thinks you shouldn’t wait for a meeting to make important decisions. If it is necessary to bring people together to make a decision, do it immediately.
In late 2006, CEO Alan Mulally set about changing the meeting culture of Ford’s senior executive. Replacing five days once a month spent discussing auto programs and reviewing performance with four to five hours once a week and standardized content.
This released thousands of hours of preparation and participation time and improved the pace and quality of decision-making. In addition, the executives eliminated and shortened other meetings and became more selective about requests for new meetings.
At GE, John Flannery took over leadership in 2017 and his experience working overseas is influencing change. He understands the challenges of operating a long way away from decision makers and the benefits of greater autonomy. It allowed his team to make major decisions, increasing accountability among those closest to the business while helping GE Capital in Asia move more swiftly.
Flannery’s changes also have workers spending less time on internal issues and reviews, and with his advocacy of little or no meetings wherever possible, meetings have been drastically cut.
Taking a Lean approach to meetings
Irish construction company, Sisk, put meetings and reports under scrutiny when they began implementing Lean thinking.
They collected some simple data on the number of meetings, who was attending, and rough percentages of time spent on topics in the meeting, then created some new rules:
Meetings have a 1 hour hard stop
Minutes have a 1 page limit
Reports have a 2 page limit
Email is used only if talking is not enough
And ... keep talking to each other
Meetings are conducted standing up with minutes taken only if necessary. Realising from the data that they met with clients each week then also supplied a written monthly report, they sought and gained client agreement to eliminate monthly reporting.
Sisk is saving about 40 hours per week and they estimate their supply chain, who participate in their meetings, are saving at least double that amount of time.
Changing meetings with a challenge
Intel got results when they set a 30-minute meeting challenge for their 90,000+ employees, who are spread across 62 countries.
The approach was simple. Anyone could participate. Simply try to reduce meetings by 30 minutes using the effective meeting practices they already knew. Then report their experience via a web survey.
The challenge made people conscious of using meeting time wisely. There was no cost or bureaucracy, and Intel estimate a recovery of 27,000 hours of employee time.
As Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, once wrote, “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers.”
Every second Monday Steve Jobs met with Apple’s advertising agency, Chiat/Day. Ken Segall worked on the Apple account for Chiat/Day for more than a decade and writes, “Apple encourages big thinking but small everything else.”
When Jobs eye landed on a new face in one of their Monday meetings, he simply asked who they were, then unsatisfied with their response said, “I don’t think we need you in this meeting, thanks.” He moved on as if they didn’t exist, while they picked up their belongings and left the meeting.
Segall says, “The idea is pretty basic: Everyone in the room should be there for a reason. There’s no such thing as a mercy invitation. Either you’re critical to the meeting or you’re not. It’s nothing personal, just business.”
In Steve Jobs’ meeting with Apple’s advertising agency there wasn’t an agenda. The meetings shared work in progress and any news Jobs had to offer which is quite different to other meetings at Apple.
“Any effective meeting at Apple will have an action list,” says a former employee. “Next to each action item will be the DRI.”
The DRI is Applespeak for the directly responsible individual. This shared or common language makes it easy for people to understand; who to contact, who is the meeting owner on an agenda, or who is responsible for action after a meeting.
When a meeting is more
Recently, awarded the Creative Marketer of the Year award at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, Lorraine Twohill, senior VP of global marketing for Google Twohill doesn’t follow former CEO Larry Page’s advice on meetings.
In interviews she speaks about appointing women to senior roles, diversity in the workplace, the need to mentor, and how important real people and real life is in marketing.
So, when she says, “I have between 17 and 20 meetings in a day. I’ll do stand-up meetings, walking one-on-ones. In my role, a lot of people want to run stuff by me, and I don’t want to be the bottleneck. I’m obsessive about making meetings highly productive.” you understand she is being a resource and coach as much as a decision maker in those meetings.
What you should get from meetings
Remember these five guidelines to help you decide if a meeting will be useful to you, what to ask for to improve a meeting, and if the meeting you are planning is needed at all.
Is it a good use of your time? - Avoid the blanket invitation meetings, ask why you are needed or what is needed from you as attending may not even be necessary.
What can’t you get via other means of communication? – use channels of communication effectively, meetings shouldn’t substitute for other channels of communication, build a culture of accountability for keeping abreast of communication.
Focus meetings on collaboration which unearths new ideas and resolves challenges –progress updates can be done digitally
Focus on what is most important – Starting with the most important item or making it the only item on the agenda and letting the most important participants speak early in the meeting.
Clarity about what will happen next and who will do it – ask if it isn’t clear.