Effective Meetings - Broadly Speaking

“Meetings are places to go to talk about things you’re supposed to be doing later.”

Making meetings make sense

The dreaded meeting. For many people, meetings come high on the list of things that waste their time. After a work day filled with meetings, it can be easy to feel like you haven’t really achieved all that much.

During a 2010 TedTalk, software entrepreneur Jason Fried summed up the feelings of plenty of office workers when he said: “Meetings are places to go to talk about things you’re supposed to be doing later.”

And, as Fried pointed out, meetings “procreate”.

“One meeting tends to lead to another meeting, which leads to another meeting. There’s often too many people in the meetings, and they’re very, very expensive to the organisation,” he said.

Figures from software company Atlassian suggest that US employees spend 31 hours in pointless meetings each month. And, according to Atlassian’s research, nine out of ten people admit to a spot of daydreaming during a meeting.

But is possible to break the cycle, change your company culture and stop wasting hours in useless, unproductive and frankly boring meetings?

Yes, and it starts with a shift in behaviour, according to writer and speaker David Grady.

Grady’s Twitter biography describes him as “the bad meetings guy from Ted” in reference to a TedTalk he gave on office culture and needless meetings. He said that people often feel “powerless to do anything other than go to meetings and suffer through these poorly run meetings”.

But instead he suggests taking back control.

Step one: don’t accept a meeting invitation without first getting the information you need to assess if it is worth your time. “Get in touch with the person who asked you to the meeting.Tell them you’re very excited to support their work, ask them what the goal of the meeting is, and tell them you’re interested in learning how you can help them achieve their goal,” Grady said. “And if we do this often enough, and we do it respectfully, people might start to be a little bit more thoughtful about the way they put together meeting invitations…..people just might start to change their behavior because you changed yours.”

Asking the point of a meeting in advance is a good idea. The problem is that many meetings are arranged without a clear goal, making it harder for people to prepare in advance and meaning the meeting runs the risk of being utterly aimless.

“An effective meeting is one where the desired outcome is clear and achieved in the time allocated,” explained Ciara Conlon, a leadership coach, speaker and author of Chaos to Control and Productivity for Dummies.

“One of the chief reasons meeting are not effective is a lack of planning. When the attendees are unclear about their role and responsibility towards the meeting agenda, the meeting ends up being a time waster rather than a means to move work forward,” she said.

To avoid this happening, Conlon advised that meeting organisers should notify all attendees in advance about the purpose of the meeting. A written agenda can help.

“Keep it simple, it doesn’t have to be a long document,” Conlon said. “A couple of sentences to give focus to the meeting is all that is required. The agenda should focus on what we want to achieve from the meeting.”

Putting in the work in advance is one thing, but how do you stay on track during a meeting and avoid wandering off topic?

“It is important to have somebody in charge of time-keeping, ensuring that there is sufficient time for each item on the agenda and making sure that everybody has a voice,” Conlon suggested. “If there are individuals who usually dominate the conversation it is important to have someone chairing the meeting that has the ability to keep all contributions equal.”

She also suggested keeping meetings focused and on track by using a task management system during the meeting to “give structure, transparency and accountability”. “Meeting action points can be captured in real time and assigned to the person responsible,” she said.

Another way to cut the pfaff out of meetings is getting rid of the option to slump in a chair. “Many companies have reduced their meeting times by half and more by switching to a stand up meeting,” Conlon said.

While clearer goals, more accountability and keeping to the point will certainly mean less time wasted in meetings, a better meeting culture is also about valuing your own time — and saying no when necessary.

“We all need to learn to be more assertive and take responsibility for our own time at work,” Conlon said. “If you believe a meeting is a time wasting activity, come up with suggestions about what could work in its place.”