Some days I had such a deep feeling of despair when I looked at my Outlook calendar.

Frequently there would be days with at least five hours taken up with back to back 30 minute meetings. Little time to prepare for them, even less time to reflect on what had been discussed. And completing my assigned actions? That was normally done after I put the kids to bed. It is hard to work an 8 hour day when 5 hours are spent in meetings.

Sound familiar? Yes, I know I’m not alone.

And depending on who was leading the meeting would depend on whether there were any actions coming out of it. Sometimes we would just talk about problems, hypothesis about solutions and then arrange to meet again next week to do the same thing. Aaaaaah!

Think about the impact this meeting mania is having on you, your team and your business.

Frustrated Employees: Feeling like they have achieved something is key to an employee being satisfied with their day. When you have been in back to back meetings, do you feel that way?
Productivity: You have business goals. Does more talking than doing get you there?
Cost: Look around a meeting you are in today. Estimate the hourly rate for each of the attendees and calculate the cost of that meeting. (Try this great free calculator from HBR).  Is it justifiable based on the topic you are discussing?

So how do other business leaders deal with this problem?

What is the point?

“Interaction should be constant, not crammed into meetings once a week. We don’t have meetings unless absolutely necessary. When I used to have meetings, though, this is how I would do it: There would be an agenda distributed before the meeting. Everybody would stand. At the beginning of the meeting, everyone would drink 16 ounces (1 pint) of water. We would discuss everything on the agenda, make all the decisions that needed to be made, and the meeting would be over when the first person had to go to the bathroom.” Caterina Fake, the co-founder of photo sharing site Flckr.

An intriguing approach! But Caterina makes a great point.  Effective meetings need focus..

Be specific about why you are having the meeting and what you want to walk out the door with at the end”.

(Oh, is that a sense of achievement creeping back into the day?)

Focus on forward momentum rather than perfection

What can be learnt from the Startup world?

“It doesn’t matter if you’re 100 percent right 100 percent of the time. What matters is having forward momentum and a tight fact-based feedback loop to help you quickly recognize and reverse any incorrect decisions. That’s why startups are agile. By the time a big company gets the committee to organize the subcommittee to pick a meeting date, your startup could have made 20 decisions, reversed five of them and implemented the fifteen that worked.” ― Steven Gary Blank, The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Startups That Win

You can spend hours in meetings and still not make the right decision.  Make a decision, have a mechanism to monitor it closely and act quickly if it does not go exactly to plan.

Respect other people’s time

“Very obvious: Start on time, and end on time. Once people see that meetings are starting late, the bad habit builds, because people see there’s no point in showing up promptly”. Gretchen Rubin

How much time is wasted in a meeting by repeating what has already been discussed with a latecomer? This is frustrating, but hard to avoid when you are jumping from one meeting straight into another.

Perhaps make it known that meetings start sharp at 5 past the hour, and recaps won’t be possible for latecomers. If all essential attendees are not present, reschedule the meeting if the time will not be valuably spent.

“If it’s not important enough to create a written agenda, then it’s not important enough to attend”. Michael Hyatt

Meetings need structure.

Agendas should be distributed before the meeting. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Key points in the calendar request might be enough.

  • Effective meetings should always define the mission and the proposed outcome of the meeting
  • Send out pre-reading beforehand. Make the best use of the time you have people around the table.
  • Document, circulate and make people accountable for their actions.
  • What is the laptop etiquette for this meeting? Are you going to get the focus you need if people are catching up with email?
  • People should be allowed to decline a meeting if they think they will not add any value.

Bring out the best in people

“A meeting consists of a group of people who have little to say – until after the meeting.” P.K. Shaw

As the meeting leader, listen for people that are not contributing. Bring them into the conversation. It is difficult, at times, for people to compete with those that have no problem with voicing their opinions.

On that note

“Employees hate meetings because they reveal that self-promotion, sycophancy, dissimulation and constantly talking nonsense in a loud confident voice are more impressive than merely being good at the job – and it is depressing to lack these skills but even more depressing to discover one’s self using them.” Michael Foley, Embracing the Ordinary: Lessons From the Champions of Everyday Life

Sometimes those ‘loud, confident voices’ need to be kept on topic, and politely told to shut up so others can input too.  We all know people like this. Effective meetings are not a one man show.

Do you need that meeting?

“Great ideas don’t need approvals, they need application.” Amit Kalantri

Too many meetings are a result of the decision making authority being too far up the chain. If employees are empowered to make these decisions, but still want to do it by committee then you have to question why.

Meeting-free days

“Meetings can serve a purpose, but they are overrated” Mark Levy, Global Head of Employee Experience, AirBnB

AirBnB are trying to implement ‘No meetings Wednesdays’ to give people the time to work on those things they really need to get their teeth into. Imagine what brilliance could be created by your talented team with one day a week uninterrupted by meetings

Set some groundrules

If you are experiencing this meeting epidemic, think about what you would like the workday to be like for your team.

Do you need train your managers how to run effective meetings? As with so many things, we assume that people know how to do this when they get promoted. Not so.

What guidelines could you put around why, when and whether meetings should take place? This is not meant to be dictator like. This should be done in collaboration with your team with the emphasis of freeing up their time. Find a way that is better than today, try it and keep tweaking it until it gets better again.

But sometimes meetings are the best solution

“The quality of business communications has become poorer in recent years as people avoid phone calls and face-to-face meetings, I can only assume, in some misguided quest for efficiency”. Richard Branson

Well-structured meetings can achieve amazing results. And I shudder at the thought of businesses being run by email or Slack alone.  Collaboration is critical to success.  Just make sure another meeting is the right vehicle to take you there.  Check out this decision tree on to see if a meeting is really the answer

The question that needs to be asked after every meeting is ‘What did we achieve?’  Find a better approach for next time if you’re struggling to find an answer.