Meetings bring results and solve problems – theoretically. In practice, they can lead to nothing, waste dozens of labor hours and throw up some of the most idiotic suggestions you've ever heard in your life. And in the end, no one feels responsible for implementing what has been decided. Why do we even bother if there are no motivational or productivity gains to be made?
Not all meetings are bad, of course. Some manage to achieve what they set out to achieve without causing huge amounts of frustration. But there's no getting away from the fact that most meetings are held in a sub-optimal way. Here are the seven deadliest reasons why your meetings are going wrong.
Deadly Sin 1: Not Restricting the Meeting's Thought Space
Picture this: you've been receiving complaints about your accounts payable, and you call a meeting to consider how you might improve the situation. Straight away, you get three different conversations going on:
- The first group will try to understand what the problem is. They'll call for the data, ask questions, and begin to advocate for what they see as the real issue.
- A second group will jump straight to the options for action: "I know what we need to do, we need to buy this new accounting software!"
- A third group will start imagining how the business will look at the end of all this. They say things like, "Wouldn't it be great if we could turn all our invoices around in just three days?"
The fact is, people tend to occupy one of three "thought" spaces: a problem space, a solution space or a vision space. Whenever you call a meeting, you're giving people a forum to do what comes naturally to them, and do it all at the same time. Already, you've created an environment full of unpleasant standoffs, where people feel that the real issues are not being considered and their voices are not well heard.
Knowing this makes all the difference. A meeting cannot be all things to all people. Before you begin, you must decide whether you need to focus on the problem, solution or vision space. The other spaces should be resolved without a meeting, overruled as irrelevant to the problem at hand, or given a forum on another day.
Deadly Sin 2: Setting a Default Meeting Length
Have you noticed how meetings are always scheduled to run in hour or half-hour blocks, for example, from 10:00 to 10:30? Does that make sense? Could you actually get everything done in just 10 minutes if you set your mind to it? Be honest – are your current arrangements setting the ideal conditions for Parkinson's law to kick in; the idea that all work expands to fill the time allotted to it?
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, arranges his meetings according to the two-pizzas rule: no meeting should go on longer than the time it takes to eat two pizzas, and you only ever invite as many participants as the two pizzas can feed. This is good advice for keeping things crisp!
Often, we schedule an arbitrary length for meetings without focusing on how much time we really need. This is a mistake. If you can cover everything in 10 minutes, schedule 10 minutes and set everyone's expectations from the start. You should also ask yourself if you really need a meeting for a 10-minute topic, though. Maybe a short conversation is enough?
Deadly Sin 3: Tolerating Tardiness
All Judgers and many Intuitive-Feelers hate being late to anything and regard tardiness in others as rude or inconsiderate. As the minute hand ticks around, these personalities will get increasingly frustrated that they are still waiting for the meeting to start when they have better things to do. You've already lost their patience and their goodwill.
Time is money, so don't wait for latecomers. It's a source of conflict and a waste of time. When it's time to start, you should start. This sends a clear message: punctuality is expected.
Deadly Sin 4: Tolerating Those Who "Talk to Think" at the Expense of Those Who "Think to Talk"
Some people (notably ENTP, ENFP, ESTP, ESFP) talk as they are thinking. These types are frequently thinking out loud, saying things to sound out ideas or learn from the discussion. Others (most Introverts) think to talk. These types keep their thoughts firmly under wraps until they have something specific to say – which means they might not say very much at all, especially if a talk-to-thinker is continually filling in the conversation gaps without waiting for a response!
Neither approach is good or bad, right or wrong. But if your employees are using valuable decision-making time to process their own thoughts (whether that's out loud or quietly), then they're wasting time. If an employee attends a meeting, he should have thought about the topic beforehand and have all the information he needs to make a decision. Phrases such as "I'm just thinking aloud here" extend meetings unnecessarily. Focus everyone's energy on thinking before or after the meeting, not during.
Deadly Sin 5: Not Distributing Tasks Clearly
Imagine you've had one of those rare good meetings: everyone came prepared, everyone contributed, and a decision was efficiently made. Now, you've got some follow-up tasks to perform. Who's going to perform them? When? How? What are the objectives for each task? Who's going to monitor the results? It's only by converting decisions into actions that you move the company forward. If nobody feels responsible for the decision you've made and the meeting has no follow through, it winds up being a colossal waste of time.
It should always be clear who does what and when. Divvying up tasks might require forethought and planning, so if you cannot sort things out on the spot, follow up by distributing a purposeful action plan after the meeting.
Deadly Sin 6: Ending With a Summary, Not a Closure
At the end of a meeting, are you going to reiterate and summarize everything that has been discussed? Or are you going to bring things to a succinct and actionable close? People will be eager to leave by this point, so make sure you close things out with a clear to-do list or the promise of one to follow. When people leave, they should all be on the same page about what happens next. Anything beyond that need not be reiterated.
Deadly Sin 7: Using Meetings to Pursue False Goals
The only reason to hold a meeting is to accomplish something that you cannot achieve on your own. Yet most meetings are ritualistic rather than necessary – if the boss has always relayed the last month's sales figures at a monthly sales meeting, then the chances are things will continue to be done this way.
Meetings born of tradition are one of least effective ways of distributing information or making decisions because they're rigid, repetitive and mind-numbingly dull. To break the habit, you need to get serious about your agenda. A good test is to ask yourself, "what tangible impact on the business will holding this meeting have?" If you can't answer the question in a single, short sentence such as "To make a decision about the new product launch," you ought to think twice about scheduling the next one.