Don’t waste time – the 8 simple rules for effective meetings

Kids birthday party
Kids birthday party

How can you make sure your meetings don’t waste your – and everyone else’s – time? Welcome to our second guest post by Conor Neill, an entrepreneur who has founded four companies and teaches Persuasive Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona. He was previously a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as @cuchullainn.

Meetings - the practical alternative to work“Let’s meet to discuss it”. How often does a grand initiative begin this way? And end? The average man spends 4.34 hours each week in meetings, the average woman 2.28. Seventy-five per cent say that these meetings were ineffective (NY Times research).

In my years as a management consultant with Accenture I saw ten different corporate cultures. I worked in oil, retail banking, insurance, government department, monopoly telephone and mobile telephony.

Nowhere was the culture of meetings more widespread nor more ineffective than the ex-monopoly telephony company. There were many employees whose concept of a job was attending meetings. They did nothing except travel to meetings, sit through meetings, plan meetings and complain about having to attend so many meetings.

However, they spent so much time in meetings because it was far easier than the alternative of actually taking a decision, justifying it and getting on with implementation. Meetings were used as an escape from personal responsibility.

Before you say “Let’s meet to discuss it”…

Al Pittampalli asks “What difference could you make that requires no one’s permission other than your own?” Do that first. Don’t call the meeting until you have done that. If you have done that, and now need further resources you can call a meeting.

A meeting is not a tool to help a leader take a decision

The leader’s role is to take the difficult decisions. The meeting’s role is to present that decision and plan execution.

Steve JobsThe leader’s role is to keep the meeting on track. Anything that does not contribute to refining the decision or executing the decision should be taken offline. Writing side issues up on a big flip chart in the room can be a great way of showing that these side issues have not been ignored, but this is not the time and place to debate them.

If the leader does not know what decision to take, a group meeting will not help. One-to-one sessions with affected people, peers, consultants can help the leader shape the criteria for the decision. Often the most powerful tool is a blank sheet of paper and some time alone reflecting and thinking. No meeting should be called without the basic criteria for taking the decision already in place.

Before the meeting – follow these steps

In IESE Business School we have a first year, first-term course on the MBA programme called Analysis of Business Problems. This is a six-step process for taking business decisions. The six steps are:

  1. Problem. What exactly is the Problem? Do we all agree that this is the Problem?
  2. Criteria. What criteria are important in an effective solution? (Hint: financial is always a criteria, but never the only one.)
  3. Options. What alternatives exist to solve this problem?
  4. Evaluate. Compare options using our agreed criteria
  5. Risk mitigation
  6. Action plan

A meeting cannot be called until at least steps 1 to 4 have already been conducted by the leader of the initiative. One or two people might support this process, but not a formal meeting.

You’re finally in – the 8 simple rules to make it worth it

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  1. Have an agenda. No plan, no meet. How? and What? are both important; Plan together, agree agenda.
  2. Don’t invite anyone who does not NEED to be there. Don’t accept meeting invitations where you are not clear why and how you can contribute.
  3. Hard edges – start and end on time. The end time is as important as the start time; don’t accept drift – leave.
  4. Provide work for the meeting. Participate, get focus, maintain momentum and reach closure; Each person must have pencil, paper, agenda. Meetings are REAL WORK. Require preparation. Give people things to read or do before the meeting, and if they don’t, kick them out.
  5. Parking lot. Send off topic issues to the parking lot.
  6. Mobiles off?
  7. End with actions. Distribute minutes (who was there, key items discussed, actions agreed with completion date). The organiser of the meeting is required to send a short email summary, with action items, to every attendee within ten minutes of the end of the meeting.
  8. If someone is more than two minutes later than the last person to the meeting, they have to pay a fine of $10 to the coffee fund.

Fewer meetings, better lives

The next time you hear “let’s meet to discuss it”, or you are about to say those words yourself, pause for a moment. Take five minutes to state the problem, criteria and options on a sheet of paper. Ask: “What difference could I make that requires no one’s permission other than my own?” Do that first. Don’t call the meeting until you have done that.

FURTHER READING:

Never get trashed again! 8 ways to email more effectively

How to get the right people on the bus – 9 tips on hiring the best