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How to Make Meetings Effective And Worth Their Time

How to Make Meetings Effective And Worth Their Time

“Let’s have a meeting to discuss this topic.”

Do those words sound familiar to you? If you’re a working professional, especially in the field of IT, you’d hear a similar sentence for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s because meetings are a precursor to action in the corporate world. Whenever a group has to solve a problem, brainstorm ideas, get a status update, handle a crisis, or discuss a future plan, one person initiates a meeting, sets up time on the calendar and everyone hops in.

Often, the time spent on meetings exceeds the time spent working on tasks. With the present work from home scenario, the amount of time collectively spent on meetings has only increased.

Meetings are necessary, no doubt. But organizations today have pushed it to the extreme. If you’re spending an excessive amount of time on meetings, it’s time to think again. That’s exactly what this article will help you with.

Symptoms of excessive meetings:

How can you find out if you have too many meetings? Neither does a benchmark exist nor is a common ground feasible for all professions because each organization and role has varied requirements. But here are 3 common symptoms that indicate excessive meetings.

1. You feel you’re attending too many meetings

Before digging into any statistics, what does your gut tell you? If you feel you’re spending a lot of time on meetings, you probably are.

Do you have such thoughts running in your head often?

  • “Oh, another meeting invite, damn it”
  • “I have so many meetings that I don’t have time to get things done”
  • “I’m tired of attending meetings”

If you do, that’s your mind showing a symptom of excessive meetings.

Related article: How to improve focus

2. Percentage of time spent

What percentage of your time do you spend on meetings roughly? Even if you don’t have an accurate figure, try to mentally calculate. You can go back to your calendar to check your meetings for the last week. It won’t take you more than 2 minutes to come up with an approximate.

Now, is that a good or a bad number? Again, the right number can vary based on your role. If I had to put a number, I’d use these figures:

  • For an individual contributor: Max of 20% of your time
  • For an executive/manager: Max of 50% of your time

If you’re spending a bigger chunk of your time on meetings, you should assess if you’re spending more time talking and planning than doing.

Related article: How to track the time you spend

3. You barely participate in the meetings you attend

How do you go about your meetings? Do you turn off the video, set it on mute and inactively participate? Do you use the last few seconds of the meeting to mention, “Nothing from my side”? Or do you attend a meeting just to show your presence?

Those are meetings that add no value to you other than creating a false impression that you’re a devoted worker.

Problems of meetings

Today, creating a meeting has turned into the norm. Managers and employees don’t give a second thought before sending out an invite to people. But, mindless meetings have several problems which you should pause and think about.

1. Collective time spent

Meetings are not only consuming your time but also that of all the attendees. If you attended a meeting for 1 hour with 9 other participants, as a group you spent 10 hours in total. As the attendee size grows bigger, the collective time consumed adds up.

2. Meetings don’t add value to all participants

Sometimes, necessary meetings have the wrong audience. Therefore the time spent becomes fruitful for some participants and futile for others. A related situation is where one person’s presence is required only for 5 minutes but he ends up spending the whole hour listening to a bunch of unrelated topics the others are discussing waiting for his area to pop up.

3. Meetings cause attention residue

Meetings cause distractions beyond just the time spent on them. For example, if you have one meeting from 10 AM – 10:30 AM, and the next one begins at 11 AM, how do you go about the 30 min window in between?

For the first few minutes, attention residue kicks in where your mind is still thinking about the last meeting. Soon after, you realize that you have another meeting coming up, so you open your phone, and scroll through Instagram until the clock hits 10:58 AM.

Meetings waste more time than you think.

4. Not all meetings help work get done

Some meetings tackle a real problem and make progress. But some others only spark a discussion which leads to no further action.

Meetings are set up to serve a goal, but more often than not, they don’t.

5. Meetings are longer than necessary

When you create a meeting, how long do you set it up by default? I commonly receive meeting invites for 30 min or 1 hour. But, 10-15 min are plenty enough to discuss and wrap up some of the topics.

When you commence a 30 min or 1-hour meeting, the Parkinson’s law kicks in. Your mind has already come prepared to spend an hour, so unconsciously you find ways to use the entire slot. It begins with small talk and spreads into random nonsense. Yes, a personal touch is necessary even in business, but when only a few people from a group meeting involve in casual banter, the other spectators are wasting their time putting up a fabricated smile.

6. Unprepared meetings take longer and lead to confusion

When the host of the meeting comes unprepared, it causes all the participants to lose focus. For a large group meeting, the host must spend time on preparation to ensure everyone gets their time’s worth.

If you’ve invited a bunch of people to a meeting, you better not mention “I don’t have much to talk about”. The attendees are not only spending their 30 valuable minutes with you but also keeping their work aside to talk/listen to you.

One-on-one catch-ups to maintain a personal touch are an exception to this.

7. Lack of purpose

Many meetings have a title and nothing else. If a meeting only has a rough topic without a clear agenda, the participants go about it without a clear direction.

To make that worse, the title is so generic that no one can figure what the purpose of a meeting is for, example, Team meeting, Discussion, Weekly Catch Up.

If neither the host nor the participants know the purpose of the meeting, you should rethink its necessity.

8. Meetings can cause analysis paralysis

When you finish a 30 min minute but fail to come to a decision, what do you do next? You set up another follow-up meeting.

Such a mindset creates a loop where each meeting makes puny progress and sets the path for yet another meeting. Over time, the cycle turns into a habit.

If you’re conducting repeated meetings that lead to barely any follow-up action, chances are that you’re undergoing analysis paralysis or chasing perfection.

9. Meetings don’t finish on time

“Does everyone have 5 more minutes?” asks one of the participants as the meeting comes to an end. Everyone wants to get the heck out, but for courtesy, everyone nods their head. The extra 5 minutes turn into 10.

Leaders and managers are more inclined to extend the meeting beyond the schedule when they have more to add. “I’m the boss and I have more to talk about, so the team has to make time for it,” they think.

10. Some participants don’t know how to add value

Even when a meeting is important, the host invites a large bunch of people. Some of the invitees do not know why they’ve received an invitation, but they hit accept anyway. Even when they consider the meeting irrelevant, they still participate because they feel turning down an invitation can create a wrong impression.

How to make meetings effective

1. Keep meetings short(15 minutes)

The first question to ask yourself before sending a meeting invite is, “Is this meeting necessary, or will an email do the job?” The more the participants, the more you should take this into consideration.

If you believe a meeting is necessary, set the duration to the minimal possible slot. 15 min meetings are my go-to. Based on the need, I continue the discussion to 30 min because rarely do people have their calendar booked for the other 15 minutes.

When the meeting time is short, everyone is mindful of what they talk about. It eliminates needless chatter and keeps everyone focused.

Even if you’ve set a long meeting, don’t feel compelled to consume the entire time slot. If the purpose of the meeting was finished in 45 minutes, respect everyone’s time and wind up instead of using the last 15 minutes to talk about a random new topic just because you have time.

Related article: Most common time wasters and their solutions

2. Think before you add participants

Don’t blindly add participants to a meeting just because the calendar allows you to. Take a moment to think about the following:

  • Does the presence of the participant serve any purpose?
  • Will the participants remain on mute for the call without adding or gaining any value?
  • How many participants are busy on their laptops during similar meetings?

When all participants either add a meaningful contribution or gain useful information, you can consider the meeting worth its time.

A direct report of mine had a question about limiting the participants. “But that participant will be offended if I don’t invite him. He won’t add a lot of value, but I have no choice but to have him in the meeting.”

That’s a valid concern and I have two pointers on this:

  • Yes, at first, some people won’t like the fact that they’re uninvited, but over time, they’ll understand your philosophy
  • In the current situation, most people will be happy if you skip them because they’d have one less meeting to attend and use the time elsewhere.

Related article: How to say no politely

3. Schedule meetings one after another

If you’re the host scheduling meetings, and you need to set multiple of them, a breathing space of 30 minutes in between seems nice. For example, if you have two topics to talk about in 2 different meetings which have a few common participants, you’d be tempted to set one meeting from 11:00 AM – 11:30 AM and another from 12 PM to 12:30 PM.

A gap between meetings allows room for two mistakes:

  • The first meeting extends beyond the slot
  • The 30 minutes in between become an excuse to watch a funny dog video on Youtube

Set meetings one after another. Not only will that prevent people from wasting the time window in between, but it will also make you and the participants mindful about and finishing the meeting on time.

Related article: How to use time blocking to batch tasks

4. Have an agenda

If you’re the host of the meeting, you need an agenda before you invite participants and ask for a commitment of their time. The “We’ll meet and figure things out” approach has killed as much time as the argument that all meetings help work get done. If you don’t have an agenda, don’t set up a meeting before you have more clarity.

If you’re a participant don’t join unless you know the agenda. If you’re invited to a meeting that has no clear agenda, ask the host what the meeting is about and decide accordingly. If the host doesn’t respond, don’t join the meeting.

Again, you’ll find this hard to implement in the early days, but over time, you will create a culture where people around you will become more mindful about why they’re starting a meeting.

5. Remember what the meeting is for

Enter into a meeting with a purpose. If you don’t have one, you’re already making a mistake by attending the meeting.

Even when you’re in the meeting with an agenda, the tendency to get sidelined with other topics of discussion loom large. Remind yourself what you gathered for and stay focused on the outcome.

Some friendly hellos and exchanges on what someone did over the weekend are necessary because it promotes rapport and builds healthy relationships. But, if you spend 10 minutes out of an hour-long meeting on such chit-chat, you have wasted 16% of the schedule of not only you but also that of all the participants.

6. Meeting must be informational, directional, or brainstorming

Fruitful meetings fall under one of these three broad categories:

a. Informational: These are meetings where information is shared with all the participants so that they gain value out of it. Knowledge sessions, presentations on the upcoming roadmap are examples.

b. Directional: These are meetings conducted by a person in authority to provide directions and guidelines to the participants.

c. Brainstorming: These are meetings where the participants gather to exchange ideas and reach an outcome such as a solution to a problem or a plan of action.

If your meetings don’t match either of the three categories, rethink if they’re necessary. I’m not saying any meeting outside this classification is useless. But it could be useless if you don’t pause to assess the purpose of the meeting.

Please note that team meetings and recurring meetings don’t seem to fit into any of the three. Yes, that’s intentional because a team meeting or a recurring meeting neither has an agenda nor a purpose. Every team meeting needs a reason beyond just “we’re catching up as a team.” One team meeting can be informational, and another directional.

Whenever possible don’t combine different types of meetings into a single one. For example, sharing information on the quarterly sales figures(informational), and talking about ideas to boost sales in the upcoming quarter(brainstorming) in the same meeting isn’t the best way to conduct a meeting. Instead, if you conduct two separate meetings, where you share information in one and brainstorm ideas for future plans in the other, the participants will have an easier time channeling their brainpower on one target.

But, conducting separate meetings for each purpose may not always be feasible due to time or availability constraints. In such cases, split the meeting into separate time blocks and communicate upfront. For example, when you start the meeting, let people know that the first 15 minutes are for sharing a presentation and the other 15 are for discussing ideas.

7. Start and finish on time

“Let’s wait for another 5 minutes to allow people to join,” says the host. Though it appears like courtesy, such a practice sets a bad precedent.

In the book Creativity Inc, the author Ed Catmull speaks about an incident he encountered in Pixar. He narrates that when Steve Jobs partnered to work with the founders of Pixar, one of the executives wanted to stamp his authority by appearing late to the meeting. He had a philosophy in mind that the most important people arrive late.

During the first meeting, Steve Jobs looked around, noticed the missing member, and despite knowing that he was a director and critical participant in the meeting, did not wait even a minute before getting started. In just one move, Steve had crushed such unspoken negative dynamics and also passed a message that meetings start on time.

The takeaway from the story is that whenever you allow leeway, people will learn to adapt and make it a routine. If you wait for 5 minutes before starting a meeting, the participants know they have exactly those many extra minutes, so they start only 2-3 minutes after the schedule. Make a habit to start a meeting on time if you’re the host and wait for a minute at most to begin. If you’re a participant join on time irrespective of what others do.

Also, as a host, respect the participant’s schedule and finish on time. People have work to do or other meetings to attend. If you extend by 5 minutes, the participants have to inform the host of the other meeting about the delay. Your inability to finish on time can extend to people who are not even in your list of participants.

8. Send minutes for directional and brainstorming meetings

As human beings, we have a limited attention span. Our memory power is the size of a peanut. Therefore, we’re prone to forget what we discussed in a meeting. The timeline you mentioned can be missed by the intended person or an imperative detail exchanged could be forgotten.

To avoid such misses, send the minutes of the meeting to all relevant participants, especially when they include pointers and deadlines for execution.

For informational meetings, share the source of the material, such as the presentation or links to detailed content, whenever feasible.

9. Keep recurring meetings short

As much as possible, do not conduct recurring meetings. If you have to, consider the frequency. Do you need to repeat them weekly, or is bi-weekly/monthly/quarterly more suitable? In addition, consider the duration of recurring meetings. The shorter they are, the better it is. After all, these are repetitive meetings, so a short meeting can help people get down to business quickly.

Related article: How to measure time vs money

Conclusion

Meetings can be a catalyst or an obstacle to getting work done. Which way it goes depends on several factors, the most prominent being the host and the participants. Though the host has greater control and is the critical reason for an unproductive meeting, every participant also has a role to play in how the meeting went.

Whether you’re the host or the participant, how meetings work for you depends on how mindful you are of your time. If you’re spending excessive time on meetings, only you can change it for yourself. Will you?



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