Every week, I hear someone complain about the number of unproductive meetings they're having, and how they don’t have time to do any real work. Even worse, most of them don't just complain once, but regularly. It seems wasting time has become a part of the culture in many companies, leading to frustration and long faces. This is a post about how you can stop the silliness.
The meeting from hell
The meeting is not organized, it just happens. There is no clearly communicated agenda, and people attend just because they were invited. As attendees don't know why they're there in the first place, they haven't been able to prepare for the meeting in any meaningful way. To top it off, no objective for the discussion is given.
Discussion is more off than on-topic. The discussion quickly veers off topic, and stays there for the majority of the meeting. Nobody attempts to bring the discussion back to the topic. As unrelated monologues and anecdotes drag on, frustration builds. The more frustrated people get, the less they care about staying on topic.
Everyone multitasks. The electronic devices on the table outnumber the attendees at least two-to-one. At least half the room is pounding on their keyboards, responding to emails. Discussion cuts off at mid sentence as one of the speakers decides they need to answer the phone. Some are even proud of themselves and their superior efficiency.
There is a meeting-in-a-meeting. A smaller group of the participants has a completely unrelated thing they haven't had time to take care of, and decide to use part of this meeting to correct the situation. Together with the multitasking this builds into a snowball of confusion. The one person that is not multitasking or part of the meeting-in-a-meeting is thinking about setting herself on fire just to prove a point.
No next actions. The meeting is finally over. Everyone is on their way to their next meeting. Nobody knows what, if anything, was agreed, or what's supposed to happen next.
The only thing that meetings from hell reliably create are long hours and low motivation. Long hours, because everyone involved has to work extra in the evening or weekend to cover the time wasted on the meeting. This is time not spent with family and friends, on hobbies, on rest, and all the other building blocks of a balanced and happy life. Low motivation, because once people get used to soul-crushing meetings and how little actual work gets done, it's easy to wallow in the sea of mediocrity and focus on being just good enough not to get fired.
How to fix it
We could all easily do something about what seems to be a weekly suffering for so many people. The first step is to realize that this is not okay. Hopefully by now you've already come to that conclusion, and you're ready for some further suggestions.
- Only invite the people that need to participate. Better yet, skip the meeting and just have a discussion with the person you need input from.
- Have shorter meetings. There is rarely a reason good enough for a 2-hour meeting. Instead of four 2-hour meetings, have four one-hour meetings and dedicate the rest of the day for other work.
- Set an objective. A meeting should always have a reason. If you don't know what it is, don't call the meeting.
- Send an agenda. A clear agenda helps attendees prepare for and focus during the meeting.
- Lead the discussion. Begin the meeting by stating the purpose and going over the agenda for the meeting. Keep the discussion on track. Don't allow multitasking; demand everyone’s respect towards each other.
- Decide next actions. Spend the last 5 minutes on listing next actions and who's responsible for what. This way avoid having the same meeting over and over again.
This is not rocket science. We all know how to fix it. We are all frustrated by useless meetings. But why doesn’t anything change? Maybe it has gone on for so long that we stopped caring or believing that things could change. Time to stop complaining about how you waste each other’s time, and start doing something about it.
Join the revolution
Look at your calendar for next week. See all those meetings? Now focus. Is there a meeting that you don't know the purpose for? Is there a meeting with no agenda? Perhaps one titled "Meeting"? Yes, that one.
Now is the time to take a stand. Time to show that your time is valuable and that things need to change. Take a deep breath. Open the invitation.