An Effective Number of Business Meetings
Do you feel crushed under wave after wave of titanic meetings? Do you feel like you cannot get any work done during the daytime? Are you finding yourself staying late to work well beyond the normal time to leave? You might not have a workload problem, but a structural efficiency problem at work.
Generally, the root cause might not be you. The whole organization must look at its own efficiency, crushed under its own processes and dead weight. Organizations tend to fall into their own internal processes and the concept of team is more valuable than individual effort and talent. Sadly, the organization becomes a bureaucratic nightmare. It becomes the running joke -- having a meeting to discuss a meeting.
Sometimes meetings are just not important enough to attend. We need to identify when meetings are necessary, eliminate the dead weight, and only hold the ones that bring value to the business.
According to Lain Stewart, the author of How Many Non-Value Add Meetings Do You Attend (or Hold)? most meetings add only 10 percent value to a business. "One of the pathologies that exists in organizations is the justification of jobs and roles by calling and attending meetings."
"Who's on first, who's on second?"
Andy's project team had an offsite meeting with a supplier on a crucial account. They needed everyone to be on the same page to deliver the software, needed for the next tax year, to a very important client. Andy showed up to the meeting early to get the room prepared. He waited for the members to arrive. All of the supplier's team showed up to the conference room ready to start. They had prepared for the meeting and had some information about their systems; now they just needed more from Andy's team to talk good compatibility. Andy was feeling nervous; he was the only one so far. He did not have any of the files to go over, which were at the main office.
Initially, Andy assumed his team and partner, Walter, were going to bring out the documentation for the project. He was getting nervous, because nobody had shown up. Andy began to think, "Did he have his calendar wrong? Was this supposed to be an online telecommute meeting?"
Then a few minutes before the meeting was to begin, Doug appeared -- much to Andy's relief. Doug sits down next to Andy and asks, "Where's Walt?"
Andy replied, "I don't know; weren't you supposed to bring the packets?"
Doug shook his head. "Walt told me he was stuck in a different meeting, and he handed them off to Chris."
Andy was feeling nervous and in a hush voice, "Chris is at the Turner meeting; he couldn't bring anything."
Doug replied, "Chris was supposed to bring them. Who assigned him to the Turner meeting?"
Andy was concerned. "I think Walt asked him to cover that meeting, while he is supposed to be here."
Doug spoke up to the rest of the team. "Thank you everyone for coming. We will have a limited meeting, since our packages -- which were supposed to show up -- never did. Is there anything we want to start to cover?"
Andy, under his breath, said, "This is a classic 'Who's on first, who's on second' comedy of errors."
5.2 Too Many Meetings Keep Teams From Core Business
When companies get into too many meetings, it starts to restrict workers and team members from really doing their core work.
Spending all the time in meetings does not add value per person to the business. Often times it is considered wasted time.
Sometimes too many meetings cause "Management by PowerPoint." Leadership is not involved with everyday business process flow. When management becomes dependent on PowerPoint slides to keep them in the loop, they get out of touch with the reality of everyday business operations.
Too many meetings take away from the leadership and managers' true responsibilities. Their real responsibility is to eliminate any potential barriers for their team to achieve business goals.
Instead of attending meetings, the other primary responsibility of the functional leader is to handle career management of workers, not attend meetings all day.
When managers are attending multiple meetings, they are difficult to access. When an issue comes up that needs immediate attention, they are not easily available for their staff to get help.
5.3 Decreases in Individual Creativity
Holding too many meetings starts to focus on the collective process, not the individual talent. Meetings start to stifle creativity.
Having many meetings to achieve a task, people fall into the "groupthink" problem. Barbara Streibel explains: "Groupthink is the tendency of a group of people to seek unanimous agreement in spite of facts that would contradict such agreement." (Streibel, 2004)
As meetings pile up on top of each other, the process starts to restrict individuals from creative ideas outside of their own group. They cannot exchange other ideas with areas outside of their department, because they become compartmentalized.
An overload of meetings causes members to work within their own area. The term used is "staying within their silos, from top down." They dedicate time in all the meetings for people hosting them, not contributing value to the business process.
Too many meetings stifle cross-team functional teams. When several departments require multiple meetings, it becomes difficult to share knowledge with the other teams. This hurts the exchange of ideas in a cross-functional team.
5.4 Too Many Meetings Makes People Resent Going to Them
When companies experience too many meetings, it becomes a competition for each member. The host is trying to get resources to attend their meetings against other leaders.
People begin to attend meetings for the sake of attending meetings; they becomes resentful, because they feel it is wasting their time.
Team members start to feel pressure and frustration, because they feel they cannot get their job done during the normal business hours.
Team members see no visible progress happening in poorly led meetings; they become frustrated and question the value of them.
Many team members see meetings as non-value added work, while some managers see it the opposite way. In reality, meetings are considered necessary, but should be limited. (May, 2013)
5.5 Too Many Meetings Become the Communication Tool
The meeting becomes a communication tool for managers, instead of individual discussion.
Too many meetings pushes managers into a marginal role; they cannot get feedback on their behaviors and actions.
In the article, "Have More Meetings (But Keep Them Short), Matthew May explained, "I learned that the Toyota project teams held a completely opposite view of the 'meet and confer' philosophy held by most organizations. The 'confer' part was held outside the meeting, conducted by individuals in one-on-one dialogues, so that by the time the meeting was held, all team input had been gathered, and an informal consensus had been achieved." (May, 2013)
Too many meetings drive a wedge between leadership and employees; they begin to feel they do not matter. The goal is to make the project or meeting leadership happy, not contribute to the company.
5.6 Doing Offline Work Versus Meetings
To help make the business efficient, the organization should strive to accomplish more offline work, and less time in meetings. Managers must trust their employees, and empower them make decisions.
When the time comes to make a business decision, simple and effective solutions are the responsibility of offline work. The employee makes the simple decision, and the manager confers it.
Moving to more decisions offline helps turn the company from a process-based organization into a product/service based one. The company can finally get back to its core business, not waste time working on business processes.
With too many meetings, companies engulf themselves in how to accomplish the task, and who will approve it. Efficient businesses have their employees do the tasks without supervision.
Efficient companies trust and allow employees to do the work and make business decisions. If an employee makes an honest mistake, management does not punish the employee, but corrects it and moves on.
Making meetings work can be quite a task sometimes. You have to manage all of the personalities and business issues that arise. You have to create a leadership style that people will respect and gladly work with you to achieve your goals. Not all employees are born with natural leadership talent. Many do not have a charisma that draws people toward them, and makes them want to follow. Great leaders learn and hone their skills through experience and education. Nevertheless, can anyone learn to lead an effective meeting?
The answer is yes.
Making meetings become more effective is a learned experience. Anyone can do it once they know the right things to do. Once you have gained the basic groundwork of running a meeting, you start to see issues or problems before they start; you have the knowledge and the skills to prevent it from happening. This helps you gain confidence in yourself as a leader. You begin to hone those soft skills, and learn how to deal with the personalities. Having the foresight and knowledge is critical to making meetings work.
"PhD to the Rescue"
It was the beginning of a new year in the IT department, and the team assembled for their first group meeting. The manager of the group entered in with a big smile and exclaimed, "Welcome back everyone; I have a treat for you." Walking in behind him was a tall skinny man, oddly dressed, as if his fashion style never left the 80s. Both sat down at the conference room table, and the manager started the meeting with introductions.
"Everyone, this is Bob. He is coming over here from UCLA, where he earned his PhD in computer data structures. He is going to be our new team leader and take over the weekly software validation meeting."
The staff meeting completed and everyone moved on his or her way. Several days later, the team was preparing to start the first software validation meeting. Then the meeting notice went out from Bob that the meeting was canceled. The next week several members began asking about the meeting, only to receive another cancellation notice from Bob.
After the third week of cancellations, the staff manager was concerned that the validation and testing group had not accomplished anything. He found Bob hard at work at the server room, diagnosing and testing code. "Bob, why haven't you started the team meetings with your validation staff?" the manager politely asked.
Bob responded meekly, "I'm a research scientist; we never were asked to lead teams. I am deeply terrified to stand up and speak in front of crowds. I passed out on my research defense. I can't do it."
The staff manager knew Human Resources had made a terrible mistake hiring Bob to be the technical guru and team leader. He had his PhD in computer science, but he never developed his soft skills professionally. The manager thought to himself, "We have a problem and I have to correct this somehow."
6.1 Using Audiovisuals to Make Meetings Work
With any presentation, an audiovisual presentation helps keep everyone's attention centered at the display screen. This keeps your team members from losing attention while going over the topics.
An audiovisual presentation helps display pictures or graphics better than explaining it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Use animation and bright colors to keep the team's attention. Use of color makes the background pleasing to the audience, and keeps their attention during the meeting.
6.2 How to Make the Meeting Work Without Audiovisual
If you do not have access to a projector or screen to share a computer, you can do it the old fashion way: Print out the agenda and distribute it to the team.
When you have a presentation to give, and do not have access to audiovisual equipment, a tri-fold summary is useful to the team. The tri-fold printed material is excellent for a summarization or description of the company, often given to perspective clients explaining what the business does.
If the audiovisual is not present, you can print the slides of a presentation into a book or binder. You can give this to the team or perspective clients to follow through the presentation.
When you have printed material, be sure you know how many people are attending the meeting so you can produce the correct amount. Always print up a few extras, just in case someone extra shows up and needs a copy.
6.3 Everything Does Not Need to Be in PowerPoint
Sometimes PowerPoint is not available to create a presentation for the meeting. Use MS Word and make a simple document with bulleted points in it.
A short bulleted Word document is ideal for informal meetings. Just displaying a short agenda that people can follow along is sufficient.
When you are doing short, bulleted Word documents, you are not wasting extra time pulling in a formal presentation. This saves quite a bit of time to focus on the core work.
When developing a short, informal agenda or topic list, keep the list short to bulleted points. Do not create long run-on sentences that people have to read.
Do not create long paragraphs of material (a short story) that members need to look at. This will cause them to lose focus and attention quickly on what you are trying to communicate.
Here is an example of an informal, short MS Word meeting presentation:
[Informal Meeting Example]
[Pick the date]
9 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
Meeting called by Team Leader
Attendees: [Attendee list]
Please read: [Reading list]
Location: Conference Room A
9 a.m. – 9:10 a.m.
Task 1 – informal training
Get informal training on agenda.
9:10 a.m. – 9:20 a.m.
Task 2 – informal presentations
Present template for informal presentations.
9:20 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.
Task 3 – Communication
Show short words and bulleted points to view.
Show how quickly the meeting will run.
[Add any additional instructions, comments, or directions in this section.]
6.4 Tricks to Keeping High Energy and Making Meetings Work
A communication technique used by professionals in the room to keep conversation down to one person, is passing a tennis ball. The person with the tennis ball is the only one allowed to speak. You pass the ball to the person who would like to speak out. This technique keeps everyone alert and lively in the meeting.
When there is a particularly long meeting lasting more than two hours, be sure to have time allocated to take a short five- to 10-minute break. Let everyone go get something to drink, go to the bathroom, and move around.
When you feel the meeting has dragged on and energy is starting to wane, have everyone stand up and stretch. This is a technique to get blood flowing and let people move around for a bit, helping them regain energy and attention to the meeting.
Bringing snacks and food to the meeting is a great way to keep energy up within the room. In the morning, donuts and coffee really help people start of the day right. Later in the day, snacks help people snap out of that late afternoon funk that seems to affect everyone.
The use of candy as a reward system works well to keep team members attention. When you are trying to come up with great ideas in a meeting, reward the person who does generate something with a candy bar.
6.5 Other Ways to Keep Meetings Fresh and Exciting
There are other ways to keep things exciting, including changing up the colors and style of the background on the presentation. You do not need one color all the time; do something different. Some project managers have a background that follows the seasons.
Another way to keep things interesting and exciting is to change locations. Moving the location of the meeting from the same old place to an off site location helps keep things fresh. An off site location could be a restaurant, outdoor park, a supplier, or a different conference room.
Change up the presentation or style. One funny joke some project leaders do to get laughs is make the "ugliest presentation known to man." This breaks all the rules on purpose to make it look so ugly, it gets laughs out of the team. It lightens up the mood and keeps everyone's attention.
Another technique is to give a team member the "keys to the car," and let them run the meeting for the day. This rewards good work, helps change up the leader role a bit, and more importantly, you can train members to become good leaders.
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