Can We Bring Meaning Back to Meetings?

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The modern workday is packed with meetings. As companies become more fragmented, automated calendars are unfortunately there to pick up the slack, doling out alerts for wall-to-wall schedules crammed with recurring meetings — whether future meetings are needed or not.

This meeting culture certainly keeps people busy, but is it actually bringing meaning to our work, companies and careers?

Replace Meeting with Working 
Picture a 10-person meeting. At any given moment, nine people are sitting idle. Would that time be better spent doing meaningful work? And once the meeting wraps, is there anything to show for it? The truth is that most meetings don’t pass muster.

What’s the hallmark of a good meeting? When people leave the conference room, something must be different because of it.

As Peter Drucker used to say to his clients, “Don’t tell me you had a great meeting with me. What will you do differently on Monday?”

Every day, U.S. workers sit through 25 million meetings. And each year, meaningless meetings result in $37 billion in lost productivity. Even more alarming, the amount of time we spend in meetings has been increasing every year.

These days middle managers spend 35 percent of their time in meetings, while upper management spends half their time in meetings. Worse yet, executives consider 67 percent of meetings to be failures. 

Making a Successful Meeting
Meaningful meetings must have a few essential ingredients. To be effective, the ultimate decision-maker must be present, and the end result must involve immediate action and decisions made. If the goal of the meeting doesn’t involve making a decision that actually changes something, then the meeting is often unnecessary.

When I worked at Coke, I was asked to turn around a $1 billion technology project. In addition to inheriting my predecessor’s project, I also inherited his calendar, which included regular meetings with over 100 stakeholders and executives. 

By dismantling this jam-packed calendar, I was able to create meetings that were urgent and important. This gave me more time to think, work and focus on the tasks at hand.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen
Companies large and small strive to be inclusive, often inviting everyone who is even remotely related to cross-functional projects. This creates overengineered gatherings where the focus is on information sharing and consensus building rather than making choices — leading to scope creep, time delays and cost overruns. 

As a result, most meetings are about consensus building, or, to put it more bluntly, getting along as tribes. This creates a false equilibrium based on trying to make every tribe happy. But creating change and increasing velocity often requires making decisions that benefit one tribe over another. This can’t be achieved by striving for “alignment.”

Inefficiency for All
When it comes to work week time wasters, executives aren’t the only ones who fall victim to meeting creep. Many non-executives say they are bogged down by useless, inefficient or directionless meetings. In fact, 46 percent of office professionals say that at least some of their meetings are a waste of time. And only 54 percent leave a meeting knowing what the next action is.

This is important because most employees report attending more than five meetings a week. The problem is even worse for CEOs. They list “too many meetings” as the No. 1 reason why they can’t get more done.

So, what can be done to curb your runaway meeting culture? Try these four tips:

1. Limit Automatic Meetings
Many of us are beholden to status meetings that repeat week after week, more from formality than necessity. Protect and defend your calendar. If there is nothing new to discuss or decide, consider canceling to get more time back in your workday. 

Saving 10 people an hour amounts to an entire day of work for a company. Over weeks and months, this kind of savings can make a real impact on your results.

2. Get a Head Start
Before a meeting begins, make sure everyone is prepared and on the same page in terms of what needs to be discussed or decided. Never hold a meeting without an agenda, a problem to solve and an end goal. And remember to capture key points and action items so that everyone knows what needs to be done post meeting. 

3. Limit Attendance
Large meetings with unclear deliverables mean more opinions and less productivity. Whenever possible, have one-on-one meetings or sit-downs with the people directly involved at a certain stage of a project. Whenever possible, try to limit your meetings to five to eight people.

4. Stay Focused
Avoid scheduling meetings when people might be tired, hungry or busy with deadlines. These situations can cause employees to be less focused, more argumentative and less creative.

During a meeting, avoid doing other work or checking your smartphone. Up to 92 percent of workers admit to multitasking during meetings, making them much less efficient than they should be. If you’re in a meeting, you likely have a specific set of skills or knowledge that can lend value and help move the meeting along. If you are able to multitask in a meeting, you probably shouldn’t be there to begin with.

Meeting Culture, Redefined
While meetings have not maintained their relevance in the era of remote work and flex hours, there is no substitute for face-to-face gatherings when change and cross-functional integration are required. With a little bit of planning and foresight, companies can enjoy fewer, shorter, more meaningful and more efficient meetings. 

With these adjustments, we can rehabilitate meetings to meet the demands, and capitalize on the challenges, of today’s knowledge age. For more ways to improve the success of your meetings, key projects, and careers, contact Consequent and check out The Velocity Advantage.           


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