Is your company trapped in “meeting hell”? Here are three things you should consider

Hate meetings? Who doesn’t?

Not that it isn’t important to get the right people together in a room to talk about important issues, but let’s face it, in most organizations (and by “most” I mean “virtually all”) the average meeting probably lasts longer than it needs to. When it does drag on too long, productivity takes a hit and we all wind up spending more time to accomplish less.

So when I saw a link earlier today billing itself as The Key to Shorter, Better Meetings, I clicked. And I’m glad I did. In that piece, Tony Tjan boils meetings down quite nicely:

Outside of general relationship building, consider that there are only three functional purposes for having a business meeting:

1. To inform and bring people up to speed.
2. To seek input from people.
3. To ask for approval.

My cynical side argues that he left out an important one – 4. To listen to the sound of your own voice (because we’ve all been stuck in a room with that guy, I’m guessing). Snark aside, I’d also argue that, especially in organizations that rely on strong collaboration within and between groups, there’s the need for brainstorming meetings and open-ended work sessions aimed at figuring out things that the participants may not know individually. Call this latter category the “thinking out loud” meeting or the “figure something out” meeting, but what I’m talking about isn’t accounted for in Tjan’s frame. He might argue that this falls under “seeking input,” but it really goes a lot further than that.

Reflecting on Tjan’s piece got me to thinking about my own experiences dealing with meeting hell, and it turns out that I do have some ideas that you may find useful. If you’ve snooped around at all, you know that there are lots and lots of smart people with good advice on how to run effective meetings, but you may be thinking that none of those suggestions is really helping address what seem like deeper issues (and here, think “band-aid” and “sucking chest wound”). If so, let’s ponder the possibility that the problem lies not with the conduct of the meetings themselves, but with the culture in which they occur. Consider the following issues that I’ve encountered in various organizations through the years.

1: Remember, your scheduling application works for you, not the other way around. I once worked at a software firm that probably lost several hundred hours of actual productivity a week to its meeting scheduling software. The problem was that it defaulted to a one-hour increment. You could schedule meetings for as short a period as 15 minutes, but that almost never happened because doing so required you to adjust the settings in a couple of drop-downs, and it was just easier to click and go.

Were people really that lazy? How do I know that this is what was going on?

I wish I had a dollar for every time I got sucked into a meeting that had been set for an hour, even though there was no practical reason for it to last more than 20 minutes. Most of what needed doing was done by that point, but … the room was reserved for another 40 minutes. And since nothing else had been scheduled by the participants for that time, they tended to stay in the room for the rest of the hour. Stretching, padding, wasting time.

The best way to deal with this issue (since you probably don’t have the ability to reprogram Outlook) is to make a point of scheduling meetings for less time than you think they should take and to encourage other managers to do the same. We simply work quicker when we know we’re in danger of running over than when we look at our watches and realize we have an extra ten minutes to kill.

Yes, to some extent this is an artificial device that everyone will see through (like when you set your alarm clock 15 minutes fast), but over time it will reinforce that your company doesn’t want people spending more time in meetings than necessary.

2: Do you have a culture of meeting? Do meetings signal prestige in your company?

In some companies, meetings occupy an unhealthy place in the collective psyche of the organization. The software firm I mentioned above, for instance, had an extremely young employee base, and many of my co-workers were in their first jobs. Those were the heady days of the dot.com boom, and to be in a meeting – or better yet, to be in a position to call a meeting – was pure status. In the minds of way too many of these folks meeting = doing, and it certainly meant that you were important.

Worse, since the software had assimilated the culture of the entire place, anyone could schedule a meeting with anyone. You could decline, but that bordered on taboo. You had to have a reason not to meet instead of a reason to meet.

The offenders aren’t necessarily young workers, either. But if there’s a happy bounce in someone’s step – perhaps even the slightest hint of a strut – as they head off to a meeting, it may be worth considering what kinds of messages you’re sending about what counts as success.

3: Are meetings comfortable? Physically, I mean. Are the chairs comfy? Are there large windows and a beautiful view? Do the meeting rooms occupy coveted real estate in the office? Is there a coffee machine in the conference room?

When you go to airports, you’ll notice that there are lots of places to sit. However, the free, public spaces are filled with rows of not-terribly-comfortable seating. The desirable places, by design, are in the lounges and bars and restaurants. This is how those places make money (in the case of the restaurants, this may be the only way they make money). The same underlying principle applies here. Employees (be they senior execs or entry-level coordinators) have at least a subliminal tendency to gravitate toward plush environments.

You need a nice conference room to meet with guests (board members, prospects, etc.), but the places where internal groups meet shouldn’t provide an incentive to loiter. This doesn’t mean it should be so spartan that it’s hard to focus, of course, but you should probably put your most comfortable chairs somewhere else.

There are lots of other tactics for keeping meetings effective. Agendas, for instance, and meeting organizers with a clear focus on where they’re going and what the goals are. But if you have a Culture of Meeting, there’s only so much a few tactics, no matter how effectively they’re administered, can accomplish.

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