Editor's Note: This post was originally published on the Robin Blog and has been republished with permission.
Before we diagnose why meetings are unproductive (and offer you cures), let’s give meetings some kudos. They’re an effective way to get people together to discuss issues, solve problems, and come up with new ideas. They can also be great for team building and improving professional relationships.
They often get a bad rap, though. Because so many meetings are flat-out a waste of time.
Time isn’t the only thing that gets wasted, either. Unproductive meetings cost companies more than $37 billion annually. Think about it. Almost 37% of employee time is spent in meetings — and 91% of people admit to daydreaming during meetings. So unproductive meetings lead to work productivity loss and employee disengagement too.
We need meetings. But we also need them to be productive.
We have several cures for your unproductive meetings. Read on to find out about the four conditions we identify and our prescription for each.
Cure: Create an agenda and share it in advance.
Your agenda will set expectations, chart a clear direction, and give people a chance to prepare for your meeting. Share it at least a few days ahead of your meeting. Don’t just list the topics you want to cover, though.
Tips to make your agenda more than a list:
- Make note of things you'd like others to provide input on.
- Flag items that you'd like to brainstorm about.
- Mark topics that require the group to come to a decision.
When people can gather their thoughts in advance, you’ll create a better flow during the meeting and streamline conversations.
Having a clear agenda – and sticking to it – leaves more time for discussion, which will engage the people in the room much more than you reciting a monologue. (Face it. Monologues are only entertaining when they’re in a good play.)
Condition: Stretching the Meeting
Cure: Watch the clock, and end early, when possible.
You scheduled the meeting to run until 3:00. It’s 2:40 and you’ve covered all the agenda items. At this point, you might feel compelled to have more discussion, or revisit an agenda item and hold the meeting to the scheduled end.
Parkinson’s Law explains this temptation to run the full hour: work will expand to fit the time available. This is a law you should violate, when possible.
Don’t keep the meeting going beyond its intended purpose. Once the agenda items have all been checked off, end the meeting. Even if that means you end at the 15-minute mark when you scheduled an hour. People will thank you for giving them their time back.
Condition: Meeting Bloat
Cure: Invite only the people who really need to be in the meeting.
If it’s standing room only in your meeting space, you probably invited too many people. (Of course, sometimes the trouble is finding the right room to fit your meeting. A scheduling tool that gives you flexibility to search spaces by capacity is a quick cure.)
There’s an opportunity cost involved in attending a meeting. When you invite someone, you’re not only asking them for their time, you’re asking them to set aside the work they could have gotten done. Maybe you’re even asking them to give up some of their lunch hour if attending your meeting means they have to shorten their lunchtime to get a project done.
There’s another problem with too many people in the meeting room: it makes conversation difficult. Too many cooks in the kitchen is yet another reason why meetings are unproductive. It’s impossible for everyone to be an active participant, which leads to frustration when people can’t get a word in edgewise, and distraction when people tune out.
Meeting Size Rules You Can Use
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, follows the Two Pizza Rule: keep teams small enough that they can be fed with two pizzas. Not only does this keep meetings productive, but it also guards against groupthink.
If the Two Pizza Rule isn’t concrete enough for you, consider the Rule of 7. Seven is the ideal number for group tasks – including meetings. For every person over that magic number, the likelihood of making an executable decision goes down by 10%. Once you get 16 or 17 people in the room, decision effectiveness is just about zero.
Avoid the over-invitation temptation. Review your invitation list. Who really needs to be in your meeting?
Cure: Ask people to leave their mobile devices at their desks – and make it a ground rule.
You’re the meeting organizer – the floor is yours. You have the right to undivided attention. Keeping people focused on the discussion at hand will keep your meeting moving. So don’t hesitate to ask people to leave their phones, laptops, and tablets at their desk when they come to your meeting.
Better yet, create a set of ground rules. Especially if you host meetings regularly and/or frequently, a set of ground rules can make it easier for everyone to know what’s expected of them, every time.
Here are some ideas for ground rules:
- Leave mobile devices at your desk
- Be on time
- Don't bring food, or at least food that is distracting
- Be ready to take notes
- Come ready to discuss what's on the agenda
- Keep your shoes on — no matter how awesome your socks are
No need to take time during the meeting to review these ground rules. Tack them on to the end of your agenda or to the meeting invitation.
Bonus tip for a remote team:
Have video calls instead of phone calls with your remote team members. Studies show that people are less likely to multitask on video calls (4%) versus phone calls (57%).
End Unproductive Meetings and Be a Meeting Hero
Curing these four meeting conditions will not only make your meetings more productive – it will result in a happier workplace. Respect others’ time and your meeting invitations will be met with fewer groans and more "heck yeahs".