7 ways to ensure work meetings aren't a waste of time

Luis Alvarez / Getty
  • There are ways to deal with bad meeting syndrome.
  • One is to not have a meeting if you don’t need one.
  • Have shorter meetings. They don’t have to be one hour long.

It seems everyone is agreed: meetings are the bane of corporate life and the number one cause of inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Or are they?

The question of whether meetings are good or bad is a little like asking if television is good or bad, or if robots are good or bad. In other words, it is impossible to ascribe to meetings a trait of being either intrinsically good or intrinsically bad.

While some television programs seem designed to reduce IQ points while adding subcutaneous fat, others are edifying experiences that broaden our horizons and connect us with the world.

Similarly, some meetings are tedious, some do irrevocable harm, some meetings forge strong bonds, and some meetings are sources of brilliant insight and collective commitment.

That said, from a purely statistical perspective, most meetings are bad. In a typical organisation, there are too many of them, they are generally poorly planned and designed, they are badly run, last too long, and often fail to produce the intended outcomes. In some cases, they not only waste time and resources but also diminish business outcomes.

I recommend using the following principles to address bad meeting syndrome:

    1. Ensure your business works to an outcomes-based culture. If you know what outcomes you are focused on, you can then more effectively determine whether the meeting is worth having, what outcomes it needs to produce, and what content, structure and methods you’ll need it to have.
    2. Don’t have a meeting at all if you don’t need to. If you do have a meeting, use it for its most valuable purpose: doing things that can only be done by bringing people together. If it doesn’t achieve something that could be done through a less time-consuming method, don’t set up a meeting.
    3. Be clear on what kind of meeting it is. There are essential five kinds of meeting: operational, strategic, creative, interpersonal and crisis. Each requires a different approach. Operational meetings should be ruthlessly efficient (and you may even find you can replace it with an online tool or spreadsheet rather than meeting at all). By contrast, a creative meeting needs room to combine diverse perspectives and should ideally happen in the window between 10am and 12noon, when people’s brains are usually sharpest.
    4. Whatever kind of meeting it is (except for some crisis meetings), ensure everyone is very clear about what its purpose and objectives are in advance. Provide reading material, require people to be prepared and don’t waste time rehashing what should already be understood.
    5. Don’t have more than 7 people in the meeting unless you really need to. Five people is even better. Jeff Bezos knew what he was doing when he instituted the ‘two pizza rule’ at Amazon.
    6. Don’t have the meeting for an hour just because that’s how your diary is structured. Typically, reducing a one-hour meeting to 25 minutes, or a full-day meeting to a morning will produce better outcomes in less time, if it is approached in the right way. One way to do this is by having meetings standing up. Research findings have indicated that simply holding your meetings standing up can reduce their duration by 34%.
    7. Don’t walk out without clarity on what’s been decided and who’s going to do what as a result. Then ensure there is accountability for these actions. Reporting back on this should then be the first item of business for the follow-up meetings.

Make these changes and you’ll have fewer, more valuable meetings, that will take less time and produce better outcomes. You may then decide that meetings aren’t actually bad: badly designed and run meetings are bad.

(Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta, focusing on designing organisations and leaders for the cyber-physical age. He is also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, providing accelerated development opportunities for Australia’s most promising Indigenous scholars, and a member of the Amnesty International 2020 Council.)

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