Transforming Meaningless Meetings into Meaningful Meetings

By Jeremy Wilt

Published: January 25, 2016

“We should consider whether our meetings provide value. … When you leave a meeting with a sense of accomplishment and shared understanding, it was a worthwhile meeting.”

The first step to overcoming any addiction is admitting there’s a problem. The business world is addicted to meetings. We demonstrate what we value by what we put our time and energy into. In most companies, people spend the majority of their time either in meetings or working on ideas or activities that began in meetings. From the Board of Directors and the executive leadership team on down throughout entire organizations, most companies have a growing dependence on meetings.

We’re now so used to meeting just for the sake of meeting that many of us walk like zombies from meeting to meeting and find ourselves staring at bullet-point presentations, shared screens, and video-conference systems for hours at a time. It’s no wonder that many meetings leave us feeling demotivated, disillusioned, and exhausted. Yet, with all the time we spend in meetings, we rarely stop to question why we meet.

While our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate all meetings, we should consider whether our meetings provide value. I’m sure each of us can think of a few great meetings we find valuable. When you leave a meeting with a sense of accomplishment and shared understanding, it was a worthwhile meeting. There are valid reasons to meet, but I believe there are very few good ones.

Workshops: A Good Example of Meaningful Meetings

“Workshops are a great way to get to know the decision makers, understand their needs, and gain alignment before a project begins.”

At EffectiveUI, our most valuable meetings are workshops. We bring together our clients and key players to share insights, plan strategy, and align on outcomes. We’ve found that doing design workshops with our partners can have powerful results when we do them well. Workshops are a great way to get to know the decision makers, understand their needs, and gain alignment before a project begins.

Our workshops aren’t like traditional meetings. We try to remove all the distractions, including laptops and overlapping meetings. When our clients join us for a workshop, they’ve blocked out at least a few hours of their day to be present and engage with us and with each other. We do extensive planning, defining activities and outcomes before the workshop happens, usually putting more time into planning than we’ll spend time in the actual workshop. This is key to success: the value of our meetings lies in the work we do outside them—before we show up and after we leave. Activities such as exercises with sticky notes, guided sketching sessions, and thought-provoking writing exercises stimulate generative discussions.

At EffectiveUI, we believe workshops have the power to

  • enable productive co-creation
  • overcome fixed mindsets
  • infuse projects with energy, creativity, and excitement
  • engage people in solving problems in a tactile, modular way
  • create momentum
  • shorten the time it takes to get to alignment
  • produce a sense of shared purpose

I understand that not all meetings should be workshops. Plus, there are meetings we have no control over. But, now, let's focus on the meetings we wish we could change.

Meaningless Meetings

“If you can attend a conference call and remain on mute for the entire call, you may want to question why you’re even on the invitation list.”

Take a moment to pause and reflect on your schedule. Spend a couple of minutes imagining the next few weeks on your calendar. Think about those meetings you wish you could decline—the ones that provide no value and to which your attendance adds no value. Which ones give you a sense of dread? Which ones feel heavy? Which ones do you already know will result in more work for you when they’re over? What is it about these meetings that makes you wish they didn’t exist?

Maybe it’s the people in the room. Often they don’t want to be there either. But then there are the few people whose default mode is meeting scheduler. These meeting enthusiasts typically think that throwing more people at a problem results in a faster or better solution.

Maybe it’s the nature of the meeting. My least favorite meetings are ones in which we must watch someone edit a spreadsheet. To make this even more painful, somehow it seems we allow the person who is least skilled in navigating spreadsheets to take the reins. So, throughout an entire hour-long meeting, we all observe silently, wishing we could just grab the mouse and keyboard from them.

What about the dreaded recurring meeting or status update? One of my weekly meetings was so meaningless I could call in and listen on headphones while attending another in-person meeting with my coworkers. And there were about 30 other people on the call who were also multitasking. It’s easy to spot these meetings. You might hear someone who forgot to mute his phone making a latte in the background. Such calls have little value for entire teams. If you can attend a conference call and remain on mute for the entire call, you may want to question why you’re even on the invitation list.

A Meeting Revolution

“It’s what we do outside our meetings that makes them more meaningful.”

While our goal shouldn’t necessarily be to kill all meetings, we can take a few small steps to make the meetings we do attend better. Here are a few tips on improving the quality of your meetings. Whatever you do, don’t make a poster of this list and tape it on your conference room wall. Instead, as you approach each workday, see how you can apply these ideas—both as an individual and with your teams. You’ll find that, as more of your coworkers follow these tactical steps, what were meaningless meetings might become more meaningful. It’s what we do outside our meetings that makes them more meaningful.

Decline and Refine

“There’s a huge business cost and opportunity cost to putting lots people in a room with no purpose.”

It’s okay to say no. In fact, it’s probably better in many cases. There’s a huge business cost and opportunity cost to putting lots people in a room with no purpose. If you receive a meeting invitation that has no well-defined purpose or has an open-ended purpose, politely decline and ask for clarification. Why do you need to be there? Is the meeting’s goal to share an update, get information, or reach an understanding? If we take the time to consider options other than meetings, we’ll see that there are much better ways to get sign-off, socialize an idea, or generate a solution. If you trust and want to empower your employees, send a delegate to a meeting in your place.

In all cases, help others realize that your time is yours to control. It’s easy to send an invitation, and people usually expect those they invite to attend. It’s time to send a new message about meeting invitations. To earn the privilege of asking for your time and attention, organizers should provide a clear purpose and expected outcomes for a meeting. The purpose of a meeting should be to accomplish something that would typically be difficult to accomplish by any other means. To summarize, scheduling a meeting should be your last resort.

Do Your Homework

“We spend so much time in back-to-back meetings that we often don’t get a chance to prepare for them in advance—or reflect on them after the fact.”

Start by preparing for meetings. We spend so much time in back-to-back meetings that we often don’t get a chance to prepare for them in advance—or reflect on them after the fact. If you knew you could answer a person’s question in 15 minutes or spend an hour discussing the question in a meeting, which would you choose? If you could spend 10 minutes reading an article to avoid a 30-minute meeting, would you do it? In my experience, some of the best ideas and the greatest alignment come from impromptu huddles with a few people for about 10 minutes at someone’s desk or in the hallway. There’s no need to book a conference room and wait a week to make sure everyone is on board with a plan.

Leave Time to Breathe

“When scheduling your meetings, make sure invitees don’t have a meeting that ends right before your meeting.”

Some of the most inefficient meetings happen when we don’t have a chance to prepare for them in advance. When it comes to meetings, the biggest epidemic is the back-to-back meeting schedule. Scheduling a meeting immediately after another one is setting the invitees up for failure. Not only don’t they have time to prepare in advance, they don’t have the mental capacity to switch gears for the next meeting. People are run ragged, and they have little opportunity to bring value to their team.

The solution to this problem is easy for anyone to try. When scheduling your meetings, make sure invitees don’t have a meeting that ends right before your meeting. It would be better to cut your hour meeting back to half an hour and leave the first half hour or fifteen minutes open for others to wind down from their last meeting and prepare mentally for the next one. The net result would be a better meeting with more engaged participants. If we all observed this common courtesy in the workplace, we would see an immediate improvement in the outcomes of meetings.

Don’t Be Lazy

“Make sure you set every attendee up for success. Spend some time and energy on understanding what you need to accomplish in your meeting….”

This recommendation is simple and demonstrates respect for your coworkers. If you’re scheduling a meeting, it isn’t enough to send a meeting invitation with a one-liner subject about coming up with a plan for something. Make sure you set every attendee up for success. Spend some time and energy on understanding what you need to accomplish in your meeting and what invitees should be prepared to talk about, learn about, listen to, or think about in advance.

I’m not talking about an agenda. Who reads those anyway? Have you ever offered to help a friend or family member move, only to show up at 8am and realize they’ve packed only a few boxes? It’s depressing to realize you’ll be spending most of your day packing the junk they should have dealt with weeks ago. Hey, at least they offered you donuts. It’s one of the most frustrating and inconsiderate things in the world to take someone’s time and energy for granted. And it makes you look like a horrible coworker or boss. So take the time to organize your thoughts before a meeting starts.

Allow Serendipity

“Do everything possible to free yourself from meetings. Take an honest look at what meetings you can get out of or cancel….”

Do everything possible to free yourself from meetings. Take an honest look at what meetings you can get out of or cancel—or change the setting to anything other than a gray conference room. Then, use some of your free time to work away from your desk. Take walks around the office, sit in the kitchen or break room and work for an hour, or leave the office for coffee and grab whoever will walk with you. You’ll be amazed by the conversations you weren’t having before, and the ideas and collaborative work you’ll soon share.

At EffectiveUI, when we need to get something done quickly or work through a problem, most of us grab a coworker and take a walk together. On most afternoons, you can see many of our employees and leaders walking around the streets of Denver, having meaningful conversations. There is a growing trend to allow serendipitous change in companies, and it centers on non-traditional modes of communicating and sharing.

Make Meetings Punishment

If you are going to have meetings, make them a last resort. For example, what if you gave your team or the people you would invite to a meeting some homework? This could be reading an article, responding by a deadline, or sending you some key information. Let them know that, if you don’t get the participation or support you need, you’ll have to schedule a meeting for follow up. This tends to work well for some day-to-day work or project-task responsibilities.

Beware of the Pander Problem

“The larger and more hierarchical your organization is, the more pervasive this problem becomes.”

I’ve left this one for last because it’s the hardest to swallow. If you’re an executive, a manager, or lead people in your company, you may want to sit down for this one. The higher up you are in your organization, the more you’ll need to hear some hard truths about your role in creating meeting issues. Many of you are likely seeking ways to help your employees be more productive. You want them to have a good work-life balance, but also to do their job well. And, if you care about your employees, you’re probably willing to do what it takes to help them be more successful and find value in their work. This might mean stepping out of their way. Believe it or not, you could actually be one of the biggest meeting offenders.

For example, that quick question you asked a senior manager last week about business performance may have led to a few dozen emails, several meetings, and collectively, involved the time and energy of eight employees. Worst of all, can you even remember what you actually did with the answer when you got it? I call this the Pander Problem because many leaders unknowingly cause these ripple effects through their teams on a weekly basis. The larger and more hierarchical your organization is, the more pervasive this problem becomes.

Most of the time, when you schedule a meeting of managers or ask a simple question, people want to please you and make sure you’re not surprised by an outcome. So they and their teams spend time in other meetings you don’t see. They spend hours emailing and digging into data or presentations and burning their energy getting you an answer. And the net result is an exponential decrease in productivity as an entire team of people shifts their priorities to help you put out a fire—real or imagined. There isn’t an easy fix for the pander problem, but the solution starts with awareness and humility.

As a leader, ask your employees whether you tend to cause this issue. And, if you do ask questions or want followup, make it clear that you don’t want their teams to churn on an answer. If you’re an employee who has wasted countless hours tracking down answers for management, it’s time to speak up. By bringing this issue to light, you can at least make sure that leaders are aware of the toll they take on productivity when they request meetings or ask questions that lead to information digging.

Taking the Next Step

“Solving problems and delivering outcomes often happens outside of meeting rooms—when we pause and truly listen to what others are saying.”

For too long, we've used meetings as a placebo for real productivity. The problem with the placebo is that we aren’t healing, and productivity is on a dramatic decline. If the medicine isn’t working, maybe it’s time to stop taking it and learn to heal on our own—even if the healing is painful.

To move forward, we have to realize that solving problems and delivering outcomes often happens outside of meeting rooms—when we pause and truly listen to what others are saying. The best answers come when we take the time to approach our work thoughtfully. Great insights and innovation happen when we’re present and engaged with our coworkers and we allow ourselves to be bored. That's right, it’s actually healthy to be bored sometimes.

It’s time to take back our time and empty the meeting rooms. If we’re up to the challenge, we’ll find that we no longer need to rely on meetings for getting things done. And we can stop relying on our meeting calendar as a crutch.

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