November 24, 2009
"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