Some Good Advice About Meetings

Philip Lay, September 2006

The bane of life in every tech company, large or small, these days seems to be the endless stream of meetings, be they conference calls or actual in-person sessions, at which their presence is required. To make things worse, because every meeting is timed to last either 30 minutes, an hour, or multiple hours(*), no allowance is made for ending them late, nor for the need to move conference rooms, or buildings, or locations. Consequently, late starts are inevitable much of the time, and before long people come to expect late starts and late endings, at which time sloppiness often becomes the rule. Not only is this disrespectful and irritating to those who take the trouble to arrive on time and ready to start, but it generates inefficient and demoralized behaviors throughout the organization.

Most of our clients, whether they be start-ups, midsized, or very large companies, experience the same syndrome. It’s a tech industry thing. And it suboptimizes every company’s activities to an amazing degree. I would estimate that companies lose as much as 40% productivity via the following sinkholes: (a) poorly defined meeting objectives, (b) unclear accountability for running the meeting and/or for executing outcomes, (c) lack of a clear, feasible agenda or target outcomes, (d) poor preparation and, even worse, weak commitment and follow-up to agreed action items, (e) too many attendees who aren’t sure why they need to be in the meeting (f) consequently, too many people semi-engaged or unengaged participants, (g) too many electronic gadgets switched on (for people to overtly or surreptitiously catch up on email or other more interesting activities).

So why aren’t companies doing anything to solve the problem? And, in any case, what is the solution. Here are a few suggested remedies:

  1. Instead of having people attend meetings on a need-to-know or not-to-be excluded basis, only invite those people who will need to do something substantive as a direct result of the meeting.
  2. Arrange meetings for 25 minutes or less, 50 minutes or less, and so on, but never for whole or half hours. Allow time for summarizing the notes from the meeting, for taking a breather, bio breaks, walking from room to room (or building to building), and so on.
  3. Make it clear who is responsible for running the meeting and, if appropriate, what kind of follow-up activities you are going to ask participants to commit to.
  4. For larger-group gatherings, provide a brief, clear agenda with stated objectives, at least half a day before the meeting or call; request that each participant read the agenda and send you any additional topics they would like to cover before the session. Incidentally, it is still appropriate for longer sessions, such as all-day offsites, to spend some time at the beginning of the meeting to refine the agenda further, but you still want to make sure that everyone knows exactly why they are there in the first place, what they intend to get out of the meeting, and what they’ll be expected to get done as a result.
  5. Send any presentation materials at least two hours before the meeting, preferably earlier, to allow people to look through them beforehand.
  6. Make sure electronic doodads are switched OFF during the session – or, in the case of Blackberrys, that people don’t do the Blackberry Hunch in your session – on pain of the perpetrators having to defer to decisions reached the actively-engaged participants. In return, if appropriate allow sufficient break times for people to catch up with urgent messages and activities.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be necessary to adopt all of these measures in order to conduct business with a marked improvement in productivity. On the contrary, I would suggest that any two of these steps could make an enormous positive difference, without any need for a repressive or adversarial stand off between meeting coordinator and participants.

(*) It’s a weak excuse to blame the technology in this case, but it does seem as if the calendar in the ubiquitous Microsoft Outlook/Exchange system is partly responsible for the slavish way in which meetings are scheduled and timed.

From "Under the Buzz", a newsletter by Philip Lay of TCG Advisors (see www.tcg-advisors.com). Reproduced with permission.

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