Meaningful meetings are possible, desirable, and should be the aim of every executive. Many people say meaningful meetings is an oxymoron, and they have a point. Research shows consistently that most meetings waste time and cost significant sums. Some studies show over 75% of meetings waste time. Get a Klu, a corporate coaching and training consulting firm found that professionals lose 31 hours monthly to unproductive meetings. Besides, they show that of the eleven million meetings held in the U.S.A. daily, half are wasteful meetings.
Curtailing wasteful meetings boost personal effectiveness and morale and improve company-wide productivity. I estimate that at least half of the hundreds of meetings I attended at work, church, and elsewhere, were unnecessary. We could have achieved better results without a meeting while not impeding relationships.
We must strive to hold meaningful meetings and stop the meaningless meetings epidemic. Always err in the direction of not holding a meeting. Still, as I show below, sometimes we need to meet. Meanwhile, here are six elements needed to hold meaningful meetings. Although they are not exhaustive, when followed, the chances of positive outcomes will improve significantly.
Meaningful Meetings Ingredients
These few basics will create the foundation for attendees to be effective at the meeting and following, and will aid the productivity of the group:
- Targeted invitees
- Start & End Times & Meeting Etiquette
- Air Traffic Controller
Conveners have a responsibility for making meetings meaningful to produce specific results graciously, and compassionately. Conveners or their delegates arrange the meetings-including developing the purpose, agenda, and expected outcomes, with relevant persons. They ensure the right people record highlights and take needed actions, but they do not perform these activities themselves-they merely ensure others do them.
The convener needs someone to assist her to look at the process during the meeting. Without concern for the process, a few people will dominate, and discussions go off topic. It is crucial folks understand that the process determines the outcome.
Not all meetings have the same purpose. However, each meaningful meeting must have a purpose. There are at least three meeting categories: information sharing, accountability and or reporting, and problem-solving. Why would anyone call a meeting without an explicit purpose? Often, a meeting is the ideal way for some folks to procrastinate-defer a tough decision. Then again, the convener, and maybe a few other folks, know the purpose, but do not articulate it to others in advance because that’s the way things happen in that firm-poor communications is the norm.
Sometimes people call meetings out of habit. They hold weekly and other meetings because that’s been happening for years. And nobody asks, why. I recall being invited to be an elder at a church. The pastor said they had weekly elders’ meeting, and I asked why. My response shocked him. Why wouldn’t I know? Still, I said, why do we need to meet weekly? The answer: That’s what we have always done. I declined the invitation.
Measningful Meetings in Japan
I saw two differences between business meetings there and in the West. First, most of those meetings were meaningful, but long, unlike here where meetings are meaningless and long.
Second, often in Asia, they tell you the purpose before problem-solving meetings. Then, they invite folks who plan to present at the meeting. Here in the West, many people come to meetings unprepared, but ready to give their views.
Third, the group paid attention when each person spoke, likely because of respect for elders and hierarchy. Participants listened to each other and built on each other’s contributions. In the West, when one person speaks, others don’t listen but plan his and her statement, which might be unrelated to what was just said.
In the West, sometimes you don’t know the aim of the meeting until after it starts. Many times the invitation does not mention the nature of the meeting. Then again, in the meeting, we compete for airtime. People don’t listen to another person’s view with an open mind. Instead, we interrupt one another in mid-sentence to add our views, even when it does not build on the speaker’s point.
In Japan, we defined and agreed the purpose of the meeting at the outset. Then we focus on solving the problem. Each person did not compete for airtime. However, I found this system weak in information sharing and accountability meetings. For instance, I was on the board of two Japanese public firms and the dearth of data given to shareholders and the brevity of shareholders’ meetings amazed me.
Meaningful Meetings Have Agendas
The ideal vehicle to define the meeting’s purpose is a carefully crafted agenda, with a starting and ending time. It should be comprehensive and indicate clearly items for discussion: ideally, with a starting and ending time for each agenda item. Besides, it should show a person or persons responsible for each item and the expected meeting outcome. Often we spend time on the first few items, especially if they are non-controversial, and rush the remaining, irrespective of their importance.
Folks who attend meetings need a reason to attend. If the session is to share data or receive reports from others, only those folks relevant to those matters should attend. When the session is to solve problems, the size and invitees will vary based on the issue. These sessions need careful planning and a skillful convener to make sure each person explains his view without interruption. Folks must listen, hear, and consider what the speaker says before giving their ideas. It is crucial that folks know others’ views before debating and dismissing them.
Here are procedural matters to help us stay focused during a problem-solving session.
- Explain fully, specific proposals before debating them.
- Differentiate clarification discussions from challenges to substance.
- Finish one proposal before moving to another.
- Convener should encourage out-of-the-box approaches that challenge the status quo; never suppress discussions until each person understands the issue. Unusual proposals may be the basis for the solution; don’t restrain them just because they are unfamiliar.
- No one should monopolize discussions.
- Convener should be sensitive to different personalities: some folks will need encouragement to present their views.
Meeting should agree action items: Someone should record key developments and specific follow up activity for each proposal including the following:
- Who – responsibility for specific action
- What – nature of action
- When – timing of next feedback
- Cost – source of resources necessary until next feedback
Although many of the above items apply to all meetings, they are particularly essential during a problem solving meeting.
Start & End Times & Meeting Etiquette
When the convener or other person call the meeting, the invitation should show the start and end times, and time and responsibility for each agenda item. The meeting should not last longer than 45 minutes to an hour-and should stick to the allotted times.
Do not allow late attendees. Advise all invitees that the meeting will start at the appointed time, so each person needs to be there a few minutes before to ensure an on-time start-and stick to the allotted times. The most offensive thing I see happening in meetings and events is when the convener says she will wait on more people to arrive. That’s an affront to those who arrived on time and merely encourages a sloppy, lateness culture.
Meaningful meetings mean proper time-keeping and the following meeting etiquette:
- No latecomers allowed
- No talking on cell phones or side discussions in the room
- If someone leaves the room to take a call or to talk with a colleague in the corridor, she is not allowed to return
- No extraneous discussions: time spent must focus on agenda items under discussion
- Meeting will end on time and each topic will get its planned time
- No interruptions-each person must finish his thoughts and no one must interrupt. Further, the next comment must refer to the most recent statement unless the convener decides to move to a different topic.
- Each person present is valuable and her views are welcomed and encouraged-nobody will be allowed to monopolize the discussions.
In my “on-going meetings” (my classes) I insist that my students be in the classroom five minutes before the start time. Students who can’t be on-time can enter during a break period, but not while the class is in session. My students get it and are on time 99.99% of the time.
Meaningful Meetings Need An Air Traffic Controller
One person trying to take over discussions is the most difficult but crucial to prevent. Often the convener or chair does not focus on the process, so people get off topic. A few folks control discussions, and the meeting ends without attaining its aim. It’s vital the convener picks someone to help to ensure fair air-time for those with needed knowledge. An “air traffic controller” or process consultant (consultant) is the person to do this.
When the focus is only on the result, shy folks and others who do not want to vie for air-time won’t speak. Others will talk, but will offer little. A process consultant who sits beside the convener to focus on the process and informs the convener, with no distraction, about deviant process issues is vital for a meaningful meeting. While the convener deals with the outcome, the consultant looks at the process to ensure ample air-time for folks needing to contribute. The consultant will look at body language, non-verbals, folks talking too much, people trying to speak but unable, and so on.
The consultant’s role is tough because that he or she is not part of the discussions, but is he or she tries to promote, through the convener, maximum sharing in the group. A well-versed consultant will watch the flow of discussions and ensure folks who would be reluctant to speak, but who wish to speak, offers his and her views on central issues. My experience is that these reserved folks have the most notable positive impact on the meeting’s outcome.
When Do We Need To Meet
Today, we have many different ways to meet electronically. We must be careful we do not meet because it is convenient, and we don’t have to leave our offices. Essentially, as I mentioned before, there are three broad categories of meetings, beyond needed face-to-face, one-on-one meetings: information sharing, accountability or responsibility reporting, and problem-solving. Still, before meeting, folks should ask the following questions:
- Why do we need to meet?
- Do we need interaction?
- Will we merely be telling people what they can read conveniently?
- Do we need to work together to come up with ideas?
- Will being together be valuable?
- Do so many people need to interact with each other?
- What if we didn’t meet?
- Is this the best use of people’s time recognizing that reducing the number of attendees saves time for everyone-attending and not attending?
Zero Electronic Devices Except For Note-Taking
To increase the probability of a meaningful meeting, we should not allow electronic devices in the room except for note taking. People who are “expecting calls” should not attend. The rule should be simple: If you are invited to the meeting, we need your complete attention. If you expect someone to contact you during the meeting, we will excuse you from the meeting and meet with those willing and able to be present.
To increase the probability of a meaningful meeting, we should not allow electronic devices in the room except for note taking. People who are “expecting calls” should not attend. The rule should be simple: If someone invites you to the meeting, they need your complete attention. So, if you expect someone to contact you during the meeting, excuse yourself from the meeting and ask someone else to brief you on the result. Only folks willing and able to be present, should attend.
Meaningful meetings help firms become more dynamic. These sessions can inspire employees. Every CEO should support them. The converse is true. People getting together with no real aim except to meet, create waste, expense, and crush morale.
To be sure, we need many face-to-face meetings because of the need for human interaction. However, we should question whether we need all meetings we plan to hold. Also, we should question the need for meetings others arrange and invite us to attend, always suggesting appropriate alternatives.