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Meetings are a time killer: how can we make them more effective?



This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 16-May-2013 issue

On the way to taking our 8-year-old son Jayden to karate, my husband told him that he had to leave a meeting early to come pick him up. So Jayden asked: “Are meetings fun? Are they like play-dates for adults?

Jayden’s comment was spot-on. Meetings are a waste of time, and most of us would rather be working. In 37 Signals’ best-selling book Rework, the company reminded their staff that “every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.” Best of all, in 2011, 37 Signals even implemented National Boycott a Meeting Day.

However, if you absolutely must have a meeting, how can you make them more effective? Here are some useful tips.

  1. Don’t ever let decisions wait for a meeting. Otherwise, the movement of the company will slow down to match their meeting schedule. This is Google’s strategy and a powerful one at that.
  2. Cost your meetings. Meetings are unbelievably expensive. If you knew how much they were costing your company, would you hold or attend as many as you do? Probably not. The meeting ticker is a fantastic free tool to help you calculate how much a meeting is costing you. Go to http://tobytripp.github.com/meeting-ticker/, enter the number of attendees, average hourly salary estimate, and meeting start time, and watch the numbers add up in real time.  Unfortunately this tool doesn’t show Rands, but the amounts in Dollars are still an eye-opener. Next time you’re in a meeting that’s going nowhere fast, put the meeting ticker up on the projector and watch how quickly the meeting gets wrapped up. Besides the actual hours, it’s also important to factor in the opportunity cost of what every person (including yourself) could be doing instead of being in the meeting. Hopefully this will make your colleagues think twice before they call aimless meetings.
  3. All meetings must have a clear purpose communicated beforehand, otherwise don’t go. If the purpose is unclear, I’ve got into the habit of asking the organiser: “So that I don’t waste your time, please can you tell me the objective of the meeting and why you need me there?” It’s a polite but efficient way of getting them to think twice about meeting for coffee “just to chat”, or holding meetings just for the sake of it. Don’t feel bad asking this question: you’re helping the organiser become a more effective manager and you’re improving their time management (and yours).
  4. Keep it short and to the point. Our calendars are broken up into 30- or 60-minute sections. We’ve become used to events starting and finishing at specific times such as 10h30 or 4pm – all round numbers. So the 10h00 meeting is invariably scheduled to run until 10h30 or 11h00, even if you only need 10 minutes to reach a decision. And then there’s the “just in case” element: everyone will already be in the same room, so let’s allocate a little extra time, just in case. And inevitably we will fill the time. Rather than falling into these traps of convention, decide in advance how long a meeting should take, based purely on what you need to achieve. Then set the meeting times accordingly and adhere to them. Although it will be hard for everyone at first (including you), people will rapidly adjust and be much more focused and productive. Donald Trump is famous for 15-minute meetings, so if he can do it, so can you. Jeff Haden, a lesser-known business expert, also suggests starting a 12-minute meeting at, say, 10h18, even if this sounds peculiar. The thinking is that it can still end on a round number (10h30), for those people who still yearn for a conventional calendar.
  5. Push for punctuality. I remember going to a meeting at a client where we started 30 minutes late, with some people wandering in even later while checking their cellphone messages. Of course the meeting went overtime. This all smacks of disrespect for your colleagues, and “African time” is no excuse. Set a start time and an end time for meetings, and stick to them. According to leadership guru Brian Tracy, this builds trust and respect and hones your management skills. Don’t punish the people who arrived on time by waiting for the latecomers. Assume that they are not coming, and kick off the meeting. If someone wanders in late and realises they’ve missed key material, don’t start again for them.  They will soon get the message, be more punctual, and help you develop your management abilities in a respectful way.  Some firms even have a rule where if a meeting is scheduled for 09h00, they lock the doors from the inside at precisely 09h01. You only need to do that one time to get people to be on time. Also, sticking to an end-time prevents rambling, off-topic and useless talk. In a nutshell, less wasted time.
  6. Invite as few people as you can. Do you really need the whole department to attend the meeting? It comes back to meeting costs and the purpose. The more people that are in the meeting, the more it is costing your company. And what if a customer needs to get hold of someone in the department, only to find that everyone is in a meeting? It could send them to your competitor. So only invite the people who really need to be there in order to make the decision that the meeting is centred on. Google has a policy of no more than ten people at a meeting, because “attending meetings isn’t a badge of honour.” If you can, keep meetings to you and the topmost decision-maker only, as you’ll reach the decision quicker, and reduce the need for more meetings.
  7. Publicly assign owners and accountability. Remember the reason for holding the meeting – what decision do you need to reach? An effective meeting leads to a decision. However that decision dies if nobody owns it or actions it. Assign ownership in the meeting. Get everyone to publicly agree on who will do what by when. And recap these action items in the meeting follow-up notes, be this by email or minutes. Most importantly, hold people accountable for doing what they said they would. Including yourself. At Apple meetings, they have a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) whose name appears next to all of the agenda items they are responsible for. With every task assigned, there’s seldom any confusion about who should do what.
  8. Encourage others to share their views. Invariably I have a lot of questions and comments in meetings, and I have to watch not to drown out the more shy people. This is a trait that many of my MBA colleagues share (in fact, we often joke: “In a meeting, how can you tell if someone has an MBA? Because they’ll give a comment, instead of asking a question.”) Early on in my career, I remember how Tim, one of my most influential managers, would keep quiet for most of the meetings he called or attended, just listening and allowing others to give their input. Then towards the end of the meeting he would come up with one or two eye-opening insights. He didn’t need to impress everyone with his comments throughout meetings. Tim earned our respect more by listening and digesting, than by giving his 10 cents worth at every gap.
    In Brian Tracy’s research, he found that most meeting leaders were not like Tim. Many tended to talk on average for 50% of the meeting. To build your management ability, Tracy suggests not doing this. As a leader, you should act as a facilitator rather than dominating the discussion. The way to prevent yourself accidentally hogging the meeting is to delegate meeting leadership. How? Whenever possible, give the responsibility of meeting management to someone else so that they can develop their skills. This fantastic training technique will allow your staff to become better at meeting management, to structure their thoughts, and to practice executing in front of a group. They will learn a huge amount from planning the meeting and the agenda, and it will also help you have more effective meetings as their manager.  Tracy suggests giving other staff the opportunity to take the leader role in later meetings, so that they also can build their management skills.
  9. Have concrete action items. From Apple to the Toastmasters, the world’s most successful companies ensure that attendees leave meetings with actionable tasks, each with clear owners. This is key to great execution.
  10. Stand up in meetings. Reily, a US food and beverage company, holds “stand-up” meetings. In other words, nobody sits down. Why? Because if people sit, they make themselves comfortable and meetings run over time. If everyone is standing, all people are more aware of time and they stick to the agenda.


We all hate meetings. The world’s most productive and successful companies have come up with strategies to help them get the most of their meetings. Hopefully some of these will help you too.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

5 thoughts on “Meetings are a time killer: how can we make them more effective?

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