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  • Writer's pictureSusanne May

Getting Meetings Right

One of the most popular New Yorker cartoons ever published showed a businessman on the phone looking at his date book and asking, “How about never – is never good for you?” I think the cartoon struck a chord because when it comes to business meetings, never would be good for most of us.

Bain & Company found that larger organizations spend as much as 15% of their collective time in meetings – and that figure doesn’t include the time spent preparing for those meetings. If meetings created value, that wouldn’t be a problem. But they don’t. That same Bain study found that a year’s worth of weekly meetings of midlevel managers cost one company $15M. As Andy Grove, the late CEO of Intel, once advised, executives should be jealous guardians of their managers’ time. “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his fellow managers,” he said.

Nor are time-wasting meetings only a big-company problem. When I left my position at a company of over 200,000 employees to launch my own startup, I hoped that I wouldn’t have to worry about bad meetings anymore. Unfortunately, I found that the only advantage is that in a small company, you can see the consequences of bad meetings much more quickly.

However, the reasons for the waste differ by size. In a big company, senior managers often spend a lot of time in meetings seeking information, just to understand what’s going on, trying to push a major initiative forward or just pushing their own agenda. In a small company, on the other hand, external meetings tend to be the biggest drain on time. The pressure to create or renew client relationships is very high in a small company, and it’s easy to let that desire for more contact overshadow questions about the content of the meeting.

How do you make sure you only have useful meetings?

Do less informational sessions. There is no need anymore to waste time with show-and-tell progress reports. A collaboration tool such as Basecamp, Dropbox, Slack or Quip can be an extremely efficient way to keep track of a project’s progress. Even in a big company where security concerns make use of such third-party tools difficult, someone in IT can probably find you an alternative.

Design your template. Meetings can be structured in a variety of ways. The right way will depend on your culture and your aims. For some ideas about new approaches to meetings, you might consider design thinking for innovation or, for example, holocracy, which is particularly good for team empowerment.

Another great resource for practical insights on redesigning meetings is Verne Harnish’s book, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits. Harnish argues that to succeed, every company must establish three pillars: Priorities, Data and Rhythm. He says that following the patterns John D. Rockefeller set for Standard Oil can ensure that your company maintains alignment and accountability by setting up a rhythm of daily, monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings.

Never write your agenda alone. Talking through your agenda with your participants helps make sure that all the important issues are discussed and the right people are present. It also insures some level of buy-in: When it’s no longer ‘your’ meeting, you should have fewer participants who are physically present but emotionally checked out.

Tweak the format. After every meeting, it’s important to keep thinking about how the structure of the meeting itself helps or hurts the conversation. Did your team fully understand why you wanted the connection and why you selected the format you followed? Did everyone participate? Was everything you did consistent with your desired company culture? This kind of introspection can be enormously valuable, particularly if you keep experimenting with new techniques.

In any organization, large or small, meeting success depends on having the right conversation at the right time with the right people. Although even with extensive planning, not every call and not every meeting will go right, good planning can help you improve the odds.

What tips and tricks do you use to get the most out of your meetings?


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