What’s the biggest source of headaches and wasted time in your company? For many people, it’s the frequent, interminable meetings. People often feel like they’re spending all their time in meetings, and as a result not getting useful things done. What can you do about that?
First, let’s recognize that meetings are deadline-driven:
- They have a fixed end time.
- They are homeostatic relative to the end time, meaning forces will act to push the meeting to end close to its deadline.
The homeostasis comes from two directions. First, there is strong pressure not to be late. Only under exceptional circumstances will a meeting go late. If it does, it will affect other meetings; or participants will schedule another meeting, which is a form of multitasking.
Second, there is pressure not to be early. Any extra time is taken up in a number of ways: by starting late; by wasting time early, especially if it looks like there’s time to waste; and by staying and chatting about things that may not be terribly important or on-topic, since the time was “reserved” anyway.
And there’s the problem: while meeting content always has variation, it’s fit into a fixed time slot.
While we can eliminate many types of deadlines, they’re unavoidable when the schedules of multiple people, with potentially conflicting goals, have to be synchronized. That’s because people’s priorities are different, and there’s usually no good way to decide whose priorities win. Therefore deadlines are ubiquitous, from business meetings to doctors’ offices to movie theaters.
The solution is to value speed over deadlines. It’s okay to have deadlines for meetings, and to value them; just value speed more. It doesn’t take a huge change effort. The meeting organizer needs to recognize that there’s a problem, organize their meetings a little differently, and explain the changes to the participants. I recommend that meeting organizers do a few things:
- Make sure the meeting is appropriate.
- Is this meeting the best way to accomplish what you need – i.e. to get to “done”? For example, if the meeting is just to keep people informed, you may be able to send information by email.
- Are all the invitees needed to contribute to “done,” or can some be given a pass and sent the notes? It may be that individual invitees themselves will need to make that decision.
- Do you have commitment from the key people to show up on time, so the meeting can get started?
- Take active steps to value speed over deadlines.
- Determine the agenda: what needs to be accomplished?
- Determine “done” for the agenda items. What do you need to accomplish for each? What is “good enough”?
- Estimate focus durations for the agenda items, and if possible add buffer time to the overall meeting duration.
- Work to “done” during the meeting. Avoid topics or details that don’t contribute to that.
- Finish as early as possible. If a meeting doesn’t finish early, evaluate what went wrong and do better next time.
- Take notes, minimally including action items and (if appropriate) your analysis of the meeting, and send them to all relevant people afterwards.
Not all of these points are simple to accomplish. They require both a shift in thinking and the discipline to follow through. Specifics will change depending on the meeting’s purpose; for example, decision making, information dissemination, team building, or some combination. But just thinking about “done” and valuing speed over deadlines will make your meetings much more productive.
- On May 15, 2014