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How to Get More Effective, Time-Efficient Meetings

May 05, 2014

It’s Monday, as I’m writing this.  A lot of us spend a significant amount of time on Monday in meetings.  For some it doesn’t let up through the week.  Most of us, if grabbed in the hallway, would acknowledge that we wished meetings were run better, didn’t take up as much of our time, and in general created more value for what they cost.  We might even voice the question defined by the title above.  Except that we would be internally adding one word we probably wouldn’t even verbalize.  It’s the word “easily“.  We’d all like to have better meetings if it could occur easily.  So keep reading and let’s talk about the hard and the easy way to get better meetings.

First of all there are all sorts of tips about how to run effective meetings.  A quick search on the web will pull a half dozen checklists.  There are lots of books  on the topic.  I’ve even written one, entitled “How to create High Value Business Meetings.”  Lack of information about how to run more effective meetings is clearly not the problem.  There’s also a clue when reading about more effective meetings.  Most of us tire quickly if it’s more than a checklist or a 3 minute video.  We’re tired, we’re busy, we want something easy… instant would be great.  Keep reading.

A colleague of mine, Rob Cantor, recently sent me a Harvard Business Review article, entitled “Your Scarcest Resource: Time is money but few organizations treat it that way.”  The authors unleash a number of findings, including:
– Companies are awash in email
– Meeting time has skyrocketed
– Real collaboration is limited
– Dysfunctional meeting behavior is on the rise
– Formal controls on time spent in meetings or consequences are rare.

The authors Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm, and Gregory Caimi, go on to suggest 8 practices to attack the problem based upon creating formal budgets to manage organizational time as a route to improving the productivity of meetings.

So there you have it.  We have both warnings, findings and recommended practices.  We don’t lack any of that information… and yet it doesn’t seem to slow the amount of time spent in meetings, as the author’s research verifies.  So what gives?  We seem about as successful shrinking meeting time as we do our waist line.

Actually reduced meeting time and losing weight, both have some interesting parallels, which make the typical approach both hard work and not very successful.

So let’s talk about the easy way to reduce the time spent in meetings.  You’re interested in that, right?

What’s that you’re thinking?  We should be able to solve this with better practices?  I mean we all experience time well spent in meetings and then time that’s being spent unproductively… we should be able to fix this right?

Let me explain in approximately 25 words (in bold), why the hard way, doesn’t work.  Two reasons actually:

1. Creating more productive meetings introduces the need for boundaries.   Most people are uncomfortable setting boundaries with participants in a meeting, especially if it’s management.  So that isn’t going to work.

 2. Meetings only reflect the prevailing emphasis upon creating value.  If people don’t have to carefully manage their time to create value outside of meetings, they won’t inside of meeting either, and as a consequence all sorts of emotional needs fill the value gap.  Ex. need  to belong, need to present well, need to exercise/demonstrate competencies, need to talk, need to be funny or entertain…  

Not to tire you, but it’s important to realize you won’t be successful at getting people to manage their time and other’s time any more productively in meetings, then they do in the rest of their day.  So creating more productive meetings, more value-driven meetings, requires an overall organizational shift to pay more attention to what creates value and actively pursue that outside of meetings.  Productivity, and the required attention and action, has to increase everywhere, not just in meetings, for it to work.

Ok, is this getting too wordy?  If you’re thinking “Yes, just get on with it,” it proves the point, doesn’t it.  We want something quick, easy and something that works.

So here’s the easy route.

Remember Parkinson’s Law?  “You know, work expands to fill the time allotted.”

The quickest way to have more effective meetings is to slash (yes at least 50%) a) the time allotted for the meeting event, and b) the time allotted for preparation.

You see you’re never going to get to more effective meetings without tighter boundaries, and since few meeting leaders/participants are willing to engage in setting interpersonal boundaries within meetings at work, the quickest shortcut to more effective meetings is simply to dramatically reduce the time allotted for them.  By-the-way, this can’t be like a 10 or 20% reduction in time allocated, it has to be significant to have an impact.

As an example, if you take a 60 minute meeting and announce that you and the group are covering it all in 15 minutes, or even 30 minutes, it changes the group meeting behavior immediately.  By squeezing our usual sense of time, it forces us or at least prompts us to reprioritize and change our behavior.  It’s what happens in the “stand-up” meeting in agile software development.

This isn’t limited to meetings.  If you doctor tells you next week you have 3 months to live and your thought you had 30 years, beyond the shock and grief, the compression of time creates an opportunity, if not forces you, to actively change your behavior, reprioritize and get on with it.  So big shifts in time boundaries are an effective way to change behavior and make better use of time (remaining), and you can use time compresssion as the “easy” way to change the productivity value of the meetings you organize.

Bottom Line:  

Disliking the amount of time spent (and at times wasted) in meetings is a common work experience.  There are numerous findings identifying the problem and offering various guidelines and checklist.  In this blog I suggest they all reflect what most experience as the “hard” and discomforting way to make meetings more productive, and therefore aren’t utilized well.  The easy way to have more productive meetings is to slash the time spent in meetings and time allowed for preparing for meetings.  Slash it by 50% or more.  You’ll like the results.

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