Meetings can be a brilliant business tool for making plans and getting things done. You gather together the best minds in the company to brainstorm, discuss, strategise and delegate. Everyone leaves the meeting charged up, focused and ready to make big changes.
Good meetings should be short, relevant, efficient and generate real results. The reality is that meetings can be a big drain on company resources. They can decrease productivity and take your best staff away from the job for too long without tangible benefits. Too many pointless meetings can even annoy your customers, who get fed up of hearing that the person they are calling is in a meeting yet again.
This article exposes the four key curses of business meetings and tips on how to break them. The results should speak for themselves. Increased productivity, better staff morale and a leaner business are just some of the great advantages of taking the axe to useless boring meetings.
The Damning Statistics
Recent research carried out by headset specialist Sennheiser Communications studied 2,000 workers and revealed some interesting insights:
- The average British employee will endure an astonishing 6,240 meetings over the course of a career.
- Six in 10 workers thought meetings were pointless and held ‘for the sake of it’.
- 70% of workers zone out regularly in meetings, most of them within the first 20 minutes.
- One in five made a mistake and a quarter of them made ‘monumental clangers’ due to lack of attention in meetings.
- One in five respondents claimed to have fallen asleep in a meeting, one in 10 of them so deeply that they dribbled or snored!
- Up to half of the respondents were disengaged from the meeting for some or all of it, with thoughts about what to have for dinner and doodling on a pad the most common meeting pastimes.
- 65% of those who were asked to travel to a meeting felt that their time was wasted, even though the average distance to travel to a meeting was 218 miles at an average cost of around £146. That’s a lot of wasted time, money and productivity.
If these aren’t compelling enough reasons to tackle useless meetings, consider the cost. Various studies have looked at the actual cost of meetings to businesses, but it is easy enough to work out how much it is costing your business. Tot up time away from the office, cost of coffee, travel expenses (including overnight stays) and lost custom and the numbers are staggering.
The Déjà Vu Curse
Do those minutes look familiar? They should, because apart from the date and a slightly different ‘apologies’ list, they are the same minutes you’ve been reading through for months. The dreaded meeting Déjà Vu Curse has struck your organisation, and you are doomed to discuss the same minor points again and again.
Break the Déjà Vu Curse by:
- Appointing a meeting co-ordinator: This role should include preparing minutes and preparing and issuing agendas in advance of the next meeting.
- Encourage positive action: The co-ordinator should be responsible for ensuring actions are completed and repetition is eradicated. If actions aren’t being completed, the reasons need to be addressed, not discussed.
- Prepare the agenda: Ask attendees for their discussion topics before the meeting and add to the agenda. Send the agenda out prior to the meeting so that attendees can prepare and complete any outstanding actions. They can also bow out of the meeting if the agenda shows there is no reason for them to be there.
- Set clear objectives for the meeting: What needs to be discussed, resolved and actioned? This should all be in the agenda, the roadmap for the meeting.
- Cancel the meeting: The above preparations may leave you with nothing to discuss. No discussion? Cancel the meeting and get some valuable work done. It is better to call an emergency meeting later than have a pointless meeting now.
The Blurred Lines Curse
Far from increasing productivity and nurturing innovation, meetings often suck the vigour and focus out of attendees by leaving them time-poor and none-the-wiser. It is not just a problem with unclear actions either. Actions set in meetings seem to be considered as ancillary to the attendees’ main job and don’t get given priority. Perhaps that is because meetings themselves often seem ancillary to what is happening on the ground in the business.
How to break the Blurred Lines Curse:
- Issue an agenda: All meetings should have a clear agenda, and attendees should receive a copy of this agenda prior to the meeting so that they have time to prepare.
- Take clear, actionable minutes: A meeting coordinator should take clear minutes that leave no doubt as to who is responsible for what. Delegates should leave the room clear as to what they are responsible for.
- Make attendees accountable: Ensure that progress is reported to the meeting co-ordinator, and that lack of progress is not saved for discussion at the next meeting.
- Circulate a summary: A post-meeting round robin email with a summary and action list ensures clarity about responsibilities and removes the need for taking notes.
- Tie things up in the room: Any questions or clarifications about tasks should be dealt with in the meeting. This not only gives the team something meaningful and new to discuss, it ensures that attendees know exactly for what they are responsible.
The Off-Piste Curse
If staff at your company meetings spend more time off on a tangent than discussing the important matters at hand, it may be time to tackle the Off-Piste Curse – the plague of boring meetings where delegates discuss anything and everything as long as it isn’t work.
This often happens where there is no strict agenda, no structure and no one person responsible for facilitating the meeting. A group of colleagues round a table with coffee on tap is not a recipe for productivity unless you introduce a few key rules that turn it from break-time to target-time. Meetings can also develop a reputation for being slack-off time, where drinking tea and catching up with ‘Jim’ from head office takes precedence over thrashing out who should be taking ownership of the new marketing strategy.
Meetings that go off-piste aren’t just wasting company time and money, they increase the boredom that those not involved in the discussion feel. If this sounds like the meetings you attend, it is time to get things back on track.
How to break the Off-Piste Curse
- Appoint a facilitator: No meeting should go ahead without someone in charge. A chairperson is a must for tightly controlled, organised meetings.
- Be prepared: All attendees should come prepared with their thoughts on relevant agenda items. This is particularly useful for introverts who perform better with time to formulate their ideas and struggle when put on the spot.
- Manage the discussion: The facilitator should keep the discussion on point and slam on the brakes when it spirals out of control. Attendees who miss the point or who like the sound of their voice a little too much should be curtailed.
- Stick to the agenda: Rigidly. If an attendee has something else he wants to discuss, he should really request it be added to the agenda prior to the meeting. If that doesn’t happen, or matters arise during the meeting, they should be discussed at the end in an ‘any other business’ section.
- Don’t stifle creativity: Allowing attendees to go off-topic can lead to ideas and innovations that otherwise would have stayed hidden. By all means prevent staff talking about their children or last night’s supper, but when it comes to lateral thinking, off-piste can generate some good ideas.
- Harness technology: It is much easier to keep an online meeting on track than a ‘round the table with coffee’ affair. Online meetings do not lend themselves as easily to chatter and off-topic discussion.
- Abolish unnecessary meetings: Staff are more likely to go off-piste when the meeting has no clear aim.
- Close each topic: Check that everyone has had his or her say on each item, then formally close the topic to discussion and move onto the next agenda item.
- Remove creature comforts: Meetings should serve a clear business purpose and not be used as an excuse for staff to have a coffee and a natter away from the desk. Keep meetings tight and on topic by removing the coffee and any food. Hold the meeting near home time so attendees focus on getting the meeting wrapped up. Or, as one meeting chairman decided to do, remove all the chairs!
The OTT Curse
Anyone who has worked in a large organisation has more than likely attended a meeting about a meeting, packed with staff who have nothing to do with the issues at hand. Meeting overkill, or the OTT Curse, is a plague on companies that recognise the value of meetings but are afraid they aren’t having enough of them. Aimless meetings create confusion and generate unnecessary work. They create so much uncertainty that more meetings are often needed to clarify the uncertainties and what to do about them.
How to Break the OTT Curse:
- Be selective about attendees: Only invite key people to the meeting. Entire teams are unnecessary as the key attendees can brief their own teams and delegate actions. A management meeting does not have to include every manager if the discussion is not relevant to them.
- Use web-based meeting applications: Enable offsite attendees to tune in and join in without having to have yet another meeting to update them. This should reduce the number of meetings overall and increase the relevance of the ones you do have.
- Agenda, agenda, agenda: This keeps cropping up because it is the best way to guarantee that a meeting has purpose and that everyone knows what that purpose is before they arrive.
- Plan ahead: If your company is hosting back-to-back meetings for an entire week, your key people aren’t doing their day jobs. Try to plan and condense the number of meetings as much as possible and seriously consider abolishing any that don’t need to take place.