In one presentation I delivered on communication skills for business collaboration success, I outlined a story where a manager tried to save some money on an expense claim.
However, this instead resulted in conducting multiple meetings which cost the company 50 times more than the receipt being claimed.
Whilst this example is extreme it highlighted the point that ineffective meetings don't just waste time, but cost the company money in terms of employee disengagement and real cash over time because it reduces capacity of your team for real work. The more people attending the meeting the more costly the meetings become and if meetings do not result in outcomes then they may as well not have occurred. Yet I've even observed Senior people drag everyone they can think of into a discussion just to cover their bases with no regard for the cost to the business or hijacking the agenda for their own indulgence.
In this article I share some real world advice how I manage to increase productivity and minimize the time consumed with professional meetings.
To start with
Firstly, let's define the cost of a good meeting – it is not about being the last person to leave but actually how much time it takes to have one. In an ideal world, if we had a 30 minute slot booked we would plan to complete in 20 minutes with 10 minutes left to allow for contingency or wrap up early and move on to other tasks if you finish before time.
Alot of meetings seem to naturally fill the time or even overrun. Ideally, you need to balance this out with ensuring you are conducting meetings that get things done e.g. align on decisions or solve a specific problem – aim for meetings that get work done, not discussions that hold someone's hand.
There are many techniques out there to help you do this, including 'productivity tools'. For example, with a lot of video conferencing software you can track attendance, record meetings and event create transcripts whilst the meeting is in progress.
1 Plan ahead
The most important technique for meeting management, more than a single tool, is a thinking ahead and having a plan for the meeting. Think about:
- What topics you need to cover?
- Who needs to attend?
- What information and evidence you need to support the discussion?
- What results are you aiming to achieve?
- What deadlines are you working to?
- If you investing thinking time to consider the important questions and goals then you will be well placed for success.
2 Be intentional about the outcomes
If there is a long term goal then you should be consistently and clearly communicating this and aligning this with the specific meeting objective.
Think about what you are trying to achieve or what impact this could have on the business and be clear on your intentions. Is it to align on a proposal? Mitigate a risk? Resolve a business problem? Establish a working relationships? Share information? Request support?
Keep a sense of proportion and remember not all meetings are a waste of time. If you have a long-term aim to encourage more positive change in the organisation then a weekly team meeting might be a good idea to get buy-in.
By having a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve, combined with a plan for execution, you can avoid wasting the time and effort of completing a meeting that fails to achieve its goals.
3 Prepare a clear agenda
The biggest decision is who to invite and when. There are two basic issues with this. The first is can you draw on the subject matter expertise of all your attendees, or consider if certain members even needed?
For example, can someone who has done a vast amount of work on the IT systems support team be part of a meeting about finding the best system to support a new end-user system or not? Can someone on the HR team be part of a meeting on recruitment or do we need to bring a senior HR advisor? The key is to ensure that you have the right people, just like you need to be clear about what you are expected to achieve by the meeting.
The second issue is the urgency of the discussion, and if you are holding the meeting as an emergency response to a recent or potential crisis you need to try to keep the urgency high.
4 Prepare the information in advance with tangible evidence
I find that meetings progress more efficiently if you have unquestionable evidence prepared in advance. High level numbers and statistics might be useful, but if it’s a tricky conversation where people may get defensive or question the numbers then indisputable evidence such as a few example transactions with a walk through to show that you have substantiated the facts reduces the time questioning the validity of a situation.
An effective way to do this is to collect all the information into a report or spreadsheet that outlines everything that supports the situation which required a meeting. Once the facts are established then the conversation can move on to focusing on the problem rather than questioning the validity. Getting people to agree on reported facts and figures requires structure, discipline and foresight.
I learnt this the hard way as Internal Control manager when I produced a weekly report for a critical document compliance issue involving the Plant Production managers – some of the delinquent managers would cover themselves by questioning the validity of my reported numbers saying that the numbers were wrong. I would have to take the abuse and when I went back to check my numbers, in reality, their team had submitted paperwork after the fact to my team during the meeting. So they had sneaked in the paperwork late and because it had been rushed it was usually completed incorrectly and wouldn’t have counted anyway, but it had undermined my position at the Executive meeting and this was a culture where throwing a colleague under the bus to cover yourself was normal business.
I had to revise my approach by setting clear deadlines first by declaring a firm cut-off for document submission and setting the standards for the quality of the documents so that, moving forward, when a production manager tried to dispute the numbers I was able to evidence that if they were unable to plan a week in advance I wasn't going to be the scapegoat. It was a tough lesson to learn, but at least it removed me from the Plant Director’s line of fire and reduced the time spent arguing whether or not my numbers were right. Not every meeting needs to be confrontational, but sometimes you have to set clear guidelines in order to focus on the facts and keep discussions on a professional level.
5 Make sure each attendee has a clear role
Aim to keep the attendee numbers as low as possible unless it’s a one-way communication like a large scale project kick-off meeting. This will help the meeting be focused and ensure that key discussion points can be managed.
Always make sure that attendees are invited to ask questions, share their views and contribute to the conversation. This does not mean you have to micromanage the attendees, but be sure to ask them to show up on time and give them opportunity to view and understand the agenda in advance, though you may not be able to ask as many questions as you would like.
If you are assigning tasks ensure that the persons responsible take full ownership and be sure to track commitments through to completion following the meeting.
In summary, the key to effective and efficient meetings is to be clear about your intention, anticipate challenges and create a system where each meeting becomes an opportunity to learn, collaborate and grow.