Raise your hand if you think the majority of meetings are a complete waste of your time — not to mention your organization’s time. You don’t need to look far for confirming evidence. Consider the data on how one company’s weekly executive committee meeting rippled through the organization in a profoundly disturbing way, ultimately taking up to 300,000 hours a year.
We could all use some of that time back. But, what can we do about the seemingly endless cycle of meetings that we’re all caught up in? I reached into HBR’s archives to find some of our best advice on meetings — how to have fewer of them, and how to make the ones we must have more productive. Here’s a summary of what I found:
The best place to start is to address your, and everybody else’s, addiction to meetings. Many of us fall into the trap of attending a lot of meetings because it makes us feel important. But before you accept that next invitation, ask yourself: “If I was sick on the day of this meeting, would it need to be rescheduled?” If the answer is “no,” you probably don’t need to be there. When in doubt, follow this handy decision tree from author and time coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders:
If you truly can’t attend fewer meetings, try to at least reduce their length — instead of 60 minutes, start with 30, or even 15, and set a goal to finish early. Or, try to schedule your part of the discussion for the beginning of the allotted time, then excuse yourself from the rest of the meeting. This is especially important for conference calls — there is no reason that all attendees should be on the call from start to finish. All it takes is a little advance planning around which topics will be discussed when. When you consider what people are actually doing on conference calls, it’s worth the upfront time and effort:
There are, of course, times when meetings are necessary. These are the three reasons that warrant a face-to-face get-together:
- To inform and bring people up to speed.
- To seek input from people.
- To ask for approval.
Don’t schedule a meeting for something that can be addressed in a phone call, and don’t make a phone call for something that can be communicated via e-mail. If you need to schedule a meeting to accomplish your goal, challenge yourself to make it quick and efficient, and keep these best practices in mind:
- Start with a focused agenda. At HBR, many of us follow this rule: No agenda, no meeting. A well-executed agenda sets the tone and direction for a productive meeting. Speak with colleagues informally ahead of time to determine the most important discussion items. Be as specific as you can, and include a timeline that allocates a certain number of minutes to each item (then, be sure to stick to it during your meeting). Send the agenda to people in advance, so they have time to prepare for the meeting.
- Limit attendees. When you’re scheduling a meeting, start by asking yourself what the priorities are, and who absolutely needs to be there. It’s important to control the size of your meeting and to have key decision makers in the room. (Don’t fall into the trap of sending out blanket invites just because online calendars, scheduling apps, and email distribution lists make it easy to do so.) If you need an important senior manager at a meeting, confirm the best time with that person first, and then schedule everyone else around it. And it should go without saying that if you’re holding a client meeting, always put the client’s calendar first.
- Keep it on track. Once you have the critical players assembled,keep your meeting from getting derailed. This starts when you send out the agenda and any background materials. If people are logging on for a video conference, it’s imperative that you’re well-trained and comfortable using the tool’s features. If you’re not, be sure to bring someone who is; you don’t want to waste the first 20 minutes figuring out how to work the audio or the webcam.
- Manage attendees. No matter how well-defined your agenda is, there will always be behind-the-scenes dynamics that can throw your meeting off track. After all, everyone comes with his or her own goals and those can influence the tone and direction of the meeting. Some will be highly engaged in the topic at hand, while others are there just because it was on their calendar. It’s up to you to be a steward of all the ideas in the room, striking the right balance between encouraging all voices to speak up and be heard,listening, and not letting people go off on tangents.
- Set the right tone. Be cognizant of what your body language is communicating to people — how we say things is just as important as what we’re saying. For example, notice whether your pose is attentive or whether you’re leaning back with your arms folded, which can indicate impatience or withdrawn skepticism. If you’re shifting in your chair, drumming your fingers, doodling, gazing out the window, or looking at your phone, then you can be pretty sure that people will think that you’re not interested in what they have to say. Body language is especially important when you’re the boss, because everyone else will be following every arch of your eyebrow.
- Define next steps and responsibilities. Never end a meeting without defining next steps, deadlines, and individual responsibilities. Keep a record of who’s responsible for what — and by when. If the meeting uncovered items that need to be further explored, set up a time for a follow-up discussion.
Of course, certain types of meetings require more strategic planning and execution, for example:
- Teleconferences: Teleconferences can be a huge time suck. But, when conducted well, they can be even more productive than face-to-face meetings because they are a quick, easy, and relatively cheap way to bring people together. They also lend themselves well to being recorded, and it’s easy to patch people in and out as needed. Here’s how to make your next teleconference more productive.
- Off-site meetings: Most management teams set aside a day to a week every year to get out of the office and do strategic planning. But too often, planners and participants assume that the off-site is just another meeting in another location. It’s really not, and needs to be approached very differently. Here’s how to make the most of an off-site meeting.
- Leadership summits: Many large and midsize companies bring leaders together for a summit once a year. But too many squander this rare opportunity to harness the collective knowledge and energy of their top executives. Here’s how tomake your next summit count.
Remember that the first — and most important — meeting you should be scheduling everyday is with yourself. Block off time on your calendar each morning to get clear on priorities and to focus on what absolutely needs to be done that day. No matter how many meetings you have on the calendar, this is the one that will position you and your team to make the most productive use of your time.