November 24, 2009

7 Habits Of Highly Effective Meetings

"How do you feel about meetings? A lot of them!?" 

That was my opening question after Jon finished his power point presentation, pitching his startup. He had a good idea, a great approach to tech and some understanding of marketing. But did he understand how to run a startup, without it imploding under the weight of its people's creativity? 

"I love meetings.  The more the merrier.  Get 'er done!," he replied. 

Wrong answer.  When people ask me what's wrong with corporate America, I often reply "bad laptops and long meetings."  Too many long meetings are killing our productivity at work. Even at Yahoo, a 2.0 company of sorts, meetings could take up your entire (long) day -- leaving you evenings, weekends, plane rides and holidays to catch up on email.  

Why did we have so many meetings? Too much democratization of product development and process improvements.  In both of those activities, there's a misguided notion that you can never have too much collaboration.  Then, add the plague of power point, which usually takes up the first 45 minutes of every meeting.  Given the fact that meetings never start on time, that means you spend your first hour listening.  Then the banter begins, followed by some screeds then topped off with white board stick-company art.  

Somewhere at the 2 hour point, the meeting ends abruptly as several attendees are either late for lunch or their next two hour meetings.  In my experience, three out of four meetings produced no real change in business.  A few of them, however, produced important insights.  Online meeting (email threads, etc.) don't work either -- the channel's too weak to convey intentions.  So we need to meet, but we need to meet much much better.  

If I had a startup, my competitive advantage would be our productivity.  Here's a handful of meeting rules I'd implement: 

1.  Meetings are to be limited to thirty minutes for a strategic meeting and eighteen minutes (like TED) for introductory or non-strategic meetings.  There would be a massive countdown clock in every conference room.  NOTE: There can be exceptions to this rule (see Brett's comment below).  But don't let exceptions become the rule -- and go back to meeting 40 hours a week and working all night and weekend to catch up w/ the workflow. 

2.  Power points will be limited to "must-have" illustrations (graphs, visualizations, diagrams, etc.) The meeting can never start off with a power point - instead, it must start with the WHY? WHAT? HOW?, leading to discussion/presentation of facts/collaboration.  

3.  Meetings always end with two minutes of promise-record keeping.  Action items are fully assigned, with delivery dates to be documented and placed into our calendars. 

4.  Meetings deemed "a waste of time" by the most senior person in the room will have a budget cost to the person who called the meeting.  Think of the chargeback system for corporate training (for no-shows and cancellations, etc.) There are many variations of this rule that can work, but the point is that we have to hold people accountable for calling meetings. 

5. NO ONE is to bring a laptop, black berry or cell phone into the meeting UNLESS there is a specific timing issue that requires them to be "online" during the meeting.  Working on two things at once is considered a sign of poor time management. Advisory: If you can't come to a meeting without a communication gadget to interrupt you, do us a favor and miss this meeting. 

6. Meetings must have a moderator, who's job is to manage agenda, time and documentation.  The moderator must also attempt to manage cross talk, but senior members in the room are expected to help in this regard too.  

7. Director level and up attendees can (quietly) leave any meeting in violation of the above rules. 

For more, read Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencioni


Comments

Commentor

Tim,

Love your stuff but this one seems off.

I guess I don't necessarily agree with the initial principle you have proposed i.e. correlating short meetings and productivity.

What you gain in time, you may lose in quality of creativity and decision making, especially at the strategic level of an organization. For example, when time is short, clarifying questions, degrees of measurement and cascading messages may be left unaddressed, "Perhaps that is something the two of you can discuss outside of the meeting..."

Smaller groups i.e. dyads or triads may be forced to make decisions without other team members being present which could create silos within the team. And that leads to anything but creativity and productivity.

Interesting you would refer to Lencioni's book to close the blog ... not sure his principles align with yours. As Lencioni would say, we don't need fewer (or shorter)meetings, we need fewer bad meetings.

Not being nic-picky just had some thoughts ...

A fan,
Brett

Commentor

Once again...words of wisdom (although I'd have to adapt number 4 to make sure that it didn't stifle creativity in junior employees).

Here's an idea for you. As someone who taught in English high schools for 34 years (saw Tim speak in Hull, Yorkshire - inspirational! ) I'm now an education consultant introducing some of the best practice from business/industry into education. Teachers' meetings to discuss curriculum development (usually arranged at the end of a long and tiring school day) can be some of the longest and most tedious meetings you'd want to endure.

As the USA is trying to transform its education system (impacting not only on the lives of its young people but also on future economic development) at present through the Race to the Top initiative, how about readers organising a 'business into education' initiative where successful businesses work with teachers in local schools to develop best business practice, enabling them to be more efficient, thus giving more time for teaching and preparation and the raising of standards?

Commentor

This is very good, Tim. A written version of "Be brief. Be seated." Thank you.


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