More on Meetings

A recent WALL STREET JOURNAL article, http://on.wsj.com/JLCTo2, referencing research conducted at Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics, reports that the average CEO spends a third of her time in meetings. Most senior executives won’t be surprised to hear that news, and in fact some of us probably would have guessed we spend well more than a third of our time in meetings. (Or at least it often feels that way.)

Two major insights come out of the JOURNAL article:

1. Many CEOs “pine for more solo time to think and strategize.” (The research suggests that the average CEO has six hours of working-alone time per week, and we’d be willing to wager that more than a few of those hours come out of evenings or weekends.)

2. When consciously assessing the amount of time they spend in meetings, many CEOs wish they could be more judicious about where and how they are investing those hours. (The article recommends thinking about “time” as “money” when putting meetings on the calendar.)

Our newsletter provocatively titled “Why We Hate Meetings” (http://bit.ly/KYnfke), sent out last Fall, generated from our readers some of the most passionate responses we’ve ever received, so we felt it might be useful to spend some more time on the topic of meetings.

Most organizations seem to have inherited an outmoded model for how to conduct meetings: one that, if it ever was effective, may no longer be useful in our 21st Century world. That newsletter cribbed some advice from our colleague Mark Nevins, which we proposed to call Nevins’s Rules for Meetings:

1. Ensure that every meeting agenda is OBJECTIVE-driven (rather than merely TOPIC-driven).

2. In every meeting, do ONLY what you cannot do via other means (e.g., conference calls, e-mail, one-on-ones, or materials circulated by e-mail).

3. Ensure that every meeting concludes with CLEAR next steps and accountability. (Doing so is the best way to avoid “meeting dйjа vu.”)

Readers specifically asked for more pragmatic tips on increasing meeting effectiveness, so following are some suggestions. Yes, some of them are a bit radical: but if you’re like most of us, you’re probably willing to try anything at this point to make your organization’s meetings more engaging, energetic, and productive:

• Share the meeting objectives prior to the meeting: “Here’s why we’re having this meeting and what we intend to accomplish.” (Don’t share a detailed agenda: all those do is give your meeting participants things to dislike before they even get there.)

• Consider how long the meeting should be, rather than just deferring to one hour. Effective meetings don’t necessarily have to be scheduled for the hour-long slot that our PDAs or calendars default to.

• Think carefully about who should attend the meeting, and make sure that all attendees have a meaningful stake in that meeting’s objectives. Meetings are not spectator sports. (And if you limit who attends, people may really want to be there!)

• Conduct the meeting standing up, ideally around a whiteboard: people will be more engaged and more likely to collaborate, think freely, and interact. And the meeting will stay laser-focused. (Plus, for sedentary executives, standing up is actually good exercise!)

• Don't allow anyone to project PowerPoint. (Really. Give it a try. You might be surprised at the results, and so might some of the narcoleptics on your team.)

• If you have a weekly or monthly “staff meeting” with your direct reports, rotate leadership of that meeting among them, and coach each of them on how to run an effective, objective-driven meeting. Doing so will ensure greater interactivity, and it’s also a good development exercise for your team.

• Engage a facilitator for the meeting. Longer meetings (e.g., offsites) really benefit from professional facilitators, if only so the leader can be a full active participant. For shorter meetings the leader can facilitate, or else nominate a colleague to process-moderate and keep the group on track.

• Check your technology at the door. All devices should be OFF. There is nobody alive who can meaningfully take part in a meeting while reading e-mail. (No, you can’t, even if you think you can. And no, nobody believes you are “just taking notes.”)

• Remember, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “less is more.” Consider having fewer, better meetings.

We’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on how the tips above work for you, and we’d also love to hear any good ideas or suggestions that we may have missed for making meetings more effective. Send us a note: info@nevinsconsulting.com

"Meetings are indispensible when you don’t want to do anything.” — John Kenneth Galbraith