“If I Have to Attend ONE More Unproductive Meeting . . . .”

In the last newsletter, I wrote to you about a productivity killer called email, which is a wonderful tool when it’s not being abused left, right, and center. This time I’m going to continue along the same path with something that affects people in every industry I face meetings that drain away our lives without contributing much value. The Atlassian study I mentioned last time found that in the U.S. alone, organizations waste $34 billion a year on unproductive meetings. That’s a staggering figure! It also explains why so many of us feel like we must take the laptop home every evening, in order to do the work, we couldn’t get to during the day while we were running from one inefficient meeting to the next. It’s a problem I frequently help my clients solve, but the solutions (while very doable) require a shift in corporate culture. People must be willing to change and stop saying “this is the way we’ve always done it.”

So, what changes will transform meetings from snooze fests to high-gain encounters? Try some or all of these:

  • Eliminate standing meetings. Back in my NCR days, all of the business unit’s managers and team leads met every Monday afternoon for a three-hour time slot. We carried lots of action items, but the great majority of the time most attendees would say, “Was that mine? Huh. Well, give me two more weeks on it.” Meanwhile, what was happening with the staff all afternoon while they didn’t have access to any of us? We have to assume that some individuals might have, oh, taken advantage of the situation.
  • Establish an expected outcome for each meeting schedule, such as determining a solution to a problem or creating a plan for an upcoming project. That outcome then dictates your attendee list; rather than “all hands, all the time,” we might have more effective meetings if just the people knowledgeable about the situation and empowered to act on it were present. And if you don’t get invited to every meeting running, offer up praise! You just got that hour of your life back!
  • Meetings are not for one-way communication; we have group email and other tools for that. Instead, every person present should have an active role to play. Remember how much fun those undergraduate courses were with a lecture hall full of two hundred students and one dull professor droning on while we took notes, hoping to pass the exams? Let’s not recreate that experience down through the years.
  • Reward the good behavior of punctuality by starting on time. I encounter different attitudes about punctuality in my travels around the world. For example, I taught project management to a group of women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the first 15 minutes of every day were spent in taking off the abaya and niqab and chattering to one another about their evening and their children. Could I adjust my timing by 15 minutes? Yes. When they had that opportunity and were now ready to start, they were very engaged and respectful, and didn’t allow any further delays. Contrast that respectful use of time with a meeting in which many attendees have made the effort to arrive on time, only to be told that “we’re waiting for a quorum” or “we’re waiting for So-and-so” . . . so their good behavior is punished, and the bad behavior of tardiness is rewarded. Doesn’t feel so good to those sitting there. 
  • Stick to an agenda. Sometimes the facilitator doesn’t know how to prevent an attendee from taking the meeting hostage around another topic altogether. Those of you who have attended meetings I facilitate know that I don’t allow this; I want everyone engaged and participating, but that may mean I have to help someone find their “off” button if they are talking too much, or if what they are saying isn’t to the purpose.  

As you coach people around you to re-think their willingness to fill up workdays with meetings, remember to breathe deeply, exhale in gratitude, and give yourself affirmations every day for the productivity killers you are eliminating. 

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