Updated: Dec 1, 2022
A survivor's guide
I’ve worked in lots of big companies over the years. All are very different, but they do have one thing in common – they all spend a huge amount of time in meetings. They love them! They think nothing of arranging a 4 hour meeting attended by 30 people. That’s 120 man-hours nobody will get back. If the meeting is weekly, 10% of the week has gone for ever.
Some people seem to spend their whole time in meetings. How do they ever get any work done, we ask? Answer: they haul it home and do it there. Hunched over their emails while everyone else is having fun. That’s no way to live.
And it kills productivity. We go to work, to work. Not to meet endlessly. Meetings are important, but they must be kept under control. If you are chairing a meeting, that’s your responsibility. Here are my tips for how to make it more productive.
1. State your purpose
Suppose you are managing Project Apollo, and you have arranged a weekly progress meeting. What’s the purpose of the meeting? Obvious, you say – ‘To review progress on Project Apollo’. But when attendees read these words, different movies are playing in their heads.
For Angela from Marketing, the purpose is ‘to stop Development slipping again’. For Masood from Dev, it’s ‘to call out a delay and blame Marketing’. For Paul from the PMO, it’s ‘to update myself on the project and avoid picking up any actions’.
These motivations will be there whatever you do, but if you make the purpose more focused, the meeting will be better.
To tease out the purpose of a meeting, imagine what would happen if there was no meeting. You are experienced enough to know that without a weekly progress meeting, the project will fail. So the purpose of the meeting is linked to the success of the project. Perhaps the real purpose of the meeting is ‘to ensure Project Apollo delivers successfully on 31 March 2020’.
Now the purpose is clear, you can make sure that everything that happens in the meeting is dedicated to that purpose.
2. Limit the attendees
A meeting isn’t some kind of party. It isn’t rude not to invite a friend. No-one will be offended if they aren’t on the list. They can get on with some work.
You must invite only those people who are essential to the purpose of the meeting. An attendee is essential to the meeting if:
(a) they know something the meeting needs to know (b) they are empowered to participate in any decisions (c) they have the authority to make any follow-up happen
Try to keep the attendees down to less than 10 people. Any more, and they will each have less than 10% of the air time. That’s a very poor use of their time.
3. Limit the time
This is a hard one. What if Project Apollo has 8 work streams? Each work stream leader will take half an hour to present progress. That’s four hours gone again! How can it be a progress meeting if they don’t present progress?
Here’s the answer – let them produce their PowerPoint progress reports, but make them publish them to all attendees the evening before the meeting. Get them to start with just one summary slide of key discussion points for the meeting. When you get to the meeting, don’t even look at the other slides unless you need them for the discussion. Normally you won’t need to, if all attendees have prepared properly.
You should be able to run a big meeting (10 people) in 2 hours max. A meeting of 6 people should take no more than one hour. A 1-1 meeting should take half an hour.
You might also like to try a walking meeting. Here's a great article by Spot on what they are and how to host them.
4. Choose your place
Most companies have lots of meeting rooms. All fully booked. Arranging a meeting place is a nightmare. Another reason to limit the number of attendees.
If you can’t find a meeting room, go somewhere else. Maybe a coffee bar, if the subject isn’t too confidential.
Actually having no room at all is best, if you can manage it. Hold the meeting by phone. Then people don’t have to travel to your meeting. And phone meetings tend to be more focused and disciplined. The act of using a phone seems to encourage people to hurry up and stick to the point.
If everyone is in the same building, try a stand up meeting. Again it’s good for meeting discipline. But don’t try to hold a stand up meeting in a room with chairs! People will just plonk themselves down anyway.
5. Run on time
Arriving late for a meeting is a bad habit, and it’s infectious. I have worked in companies where arriving on time seems to be considered rude! Rushing in ten minutes late apparently lets everyone know you are a high energy, in-demand sort of person.
If you attend four meetings in a day, and they all start 10 minutes late, that’s 40 minutes a day down the drain for everyone. 400 minutes altogether. But it’s considered normal. And yet if you go home 40 minutes early every day, you aren’t pulling your weight.
Make a deal with your colleagues. If they arrive on time, you will start the meeting on time and finish it 10 minutes early. Then they can get to their next meeting on time too.
But running a big meeting to time isn’t so easy. To make it easier, divide it into shorter chunks, and publish a timed agenda. And put a clock on the wall.
If the meeting is long, take a five minute break every hour. You will get more than that time back, in reduced tension and more concentration.
When you prepare for a meeting, you should know how you want it to turn out, and you should have a game plan that is going to get you that outcome.
If you have a 1-1 with your boss, you know what questions she is likely to ask you, so have your answers ready. And think up some killer questions of your own.
Back to the Project Apollo progress meeting. You already know the progress (or lack of it). You are the project manager. You know that Kevin has fallen behind with his testing, because of a defect that stops his tests from running.
Your aim is to avoid a delay to the project delivery date. Talk to everyone involved, and tease out the options. Then the meeting can concentrate on deciding the best course of action. This is much better than a long presentation from Kevin, dropping the bombshell and begging for forgiveness.
7. Make a record
Always make notes of your meetings. Even in a quick chat over a coffee, you might make a promise to a colleague. So write it down as soon as you can.
Unless you keep a record of your meetings, they just evaporate. It’s like they never happened. All those solemn promises are soon forgotten.
If the meeting is formal, publish formal notes, straight away. Many managers like to use Excel spreadsheets to record actions, with due dates, who requested it, and so forth. But I prefer to use a simple email, because it’s easier to write it, and read it, on my iPhone. Here’s the format I use:
12/1 Kevin will find out the cost of an extra test rig, and let us all know by Friday. 12/2 Masood will immediately assign his best designer to work on a fix for defect 4097.
The names are in bold so the actionees will notice the actions when they are rapid-reading your email.
8. Follow up
Chairing a meeting is a big responsibility. All those man-hours ebbing away. Emotions often run high, even if they are well hidden. Angela may be furious with you for ‘letting Kevin off the hook’, as she sees it.
So talk to attendees afterwards, when you are wandering around. Get feedback. Try to do better next time.
And go to see Kevin on Friday, to get his answer.
Andrew Boswell July 2016
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You might also enjoy Drew Page’s article about how to give negative feedback (and receive it).
To manage the actions arising from your meetings, use a good to-do list manager like TaskAngel. You can try it for free at taskangel.com.