It’s easy to emerge from a long meeting wondering why you were there and whether anything was achieved. Everyone complains about attending meetings, but there are ways to cut the time you spend in them.
Bloated, inefficient meetings are the bane of modern workplaces. A survey of senior managers in the US found that 71 per cent said meetings were unproductive and inefficient, while 65 per cent said meetings kept them from completing their work.
It is possible to cut meeting times to 25 minutes, argues Donna McGeorge, who has led organisational change at companies such as Ford and Deloitte.
It’s a concept popularised by the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method that comprises 25-minute intervals of work separated by five-minute breaks.
“Doing work in short, focused bursts has long been supported as a way of efficiently using time and energy,” says McGeorge.
She says a 25-minute meeting provides the ideal length of time to achieve results without impacting productivity “in a world where we are constantly distracted, overwhelmed with work, [and] time poor”.
If it sounds impossible, try the following six tips for shorter meetings:
1. Identify your purpose
The type of meeting will determine the process it follows. Scott Stein, author of Leadership Hacks, offers four categories: reporting or checking-in, problem-solving, decision-making, and strategy development. Have a good process in place for each, he says.
A common mistake is mixing meeting types, says Stein. If, for example, an issue that needs resolving is raised at a check-in meeting, don’t try to tackle it in the same session.
“Select the relevant people who can help with that issue and let everybody else get back to work,” he suggests. “Or it might mean setting up a separate meeting that’s just about problem-solving around this issue.”
The first question to ask is: why are we having this meeting?
“A good time to have a meeting is when everyone will give and get value from being face-to-face,” says McGeorge.
Identifying the desired outcome of a meeting will help clarify its purpose. Is it to finalise a decision or to report results?
“Being clear on the purpose makes it easy to identify when you go off-track,” she says.
2. Be prepared before the meeting
Send out a written agenda one or two days before the meeting to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Include details such as the type of meeting and its purpose, time and location, who’s attending, the topics to be discussed, and any background reading material.
It’s important to make sure “people have mental context to not only the purpose, but also the outcome you’re trying to achieve,” says Stein.
3. Figure out who to invite
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously said that if you can’t feed all the people at a meeting with two pizzas, there are too many people present. It’s a rule McGeorge agrees with: her magic number is seven, plus or minus two. Too many people in the room, she says, means some become spectators who contribute little.
“Any time you have more than nine in a meeting you have diminishing results.”
To determine who to invite to a meeting, she suggests asking two straightforward questions: “What value are they bringing – why am I having them there? And what value am I giving them – how are they going to get something out of it?”
Allocate roles – leader, facilitator, information giver or getter, decision-maker and note taker – so everyone in the room knows what’s expected of them.
Effective business meetings: plan your meetings effectively so that you make best use of everyone’s valuable time. This course will also help you to ensure meetings are productive, delivering results in a participatory and timely way.
4. Be on time to meetings
Turn up on time – it’s that simple, McGeorge writes in her guide on how to achieve effective meetings, The 25-Minute Meeting.
Too many of us are guilty of only leaving our desks to go to a meeting at the time it was supposed to start, or we rush from meeting to meeting, growing further behind schedule by the hour. As a result, the first 10 minutes of a meeting’s allotted time are often spent waiting for everyone to arrive.
McGeorge advocates a ruthless approach. If you occupy a senior position in the team, then lead by example. Set the ground rules and “start regardless” – even if the most important person is absent.
“Don’t allow any recaps. If people are late, they’ve missed out.”
5. Make meetings a device-free zone
You’re in a meeting, taking notes on your laptop. You see a new email alert. You check it quickly, but it’s not urgent. You switch your attention back to the meeting … and realise you have no idea what the speaker is talking about. Sound familiar?
“Phones and computers create another level of distraction,” says McGeorge, who recommends making meetings device-free zones. Twenty-five minutes is a reasonable time to be away from email and voicemail, she says.
“It’s about being fully present, so we don’t have to repeat ourselves and waste time.”
6. Change the meeting format
“Change the meeting format based on what’s going to work best for your people and … the outcomes you need to achieve,” says Stein, who offers the example of a senior manager at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, who replaced an unpopular three-hour weekly team meeting with two 10-minute catch-ups at the beginning and end of each day.
“They don’t even go into a typical meeting room – they do it standing up in the hallway,” he says.
“You can cut an hour-long meeting by up to 35 per cent just by standing up,” says McGeorge. When we’re on our feet we have more energy and less access to distracting technology, we pay more attention to speakers, and are less concerned with discussion-stifling team hierarchy.
“There’s no boss at the head of the table,” she observes.
Is it time to ban meetings?