Save yourself and your team:

have fewer, better meetings


Published on: March 2021

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

Here’s something leaders can do right now that would have a significant, powerful, and positive impact on the company: Have fewer, better meetings. More than any other corporate initiative push for growth, or effort to reduce costs, nothing can have a more immediate impact on performance and productivity than fixing meetings.

If this seems too good to be true, consider what poor meetings are costing companies today. It’s bad, surprisingly so, and research confirms the enormous drainaudit on company dollars that comes with excessive, unproductive meetings. Just as significant is the impact that poor meetings have on employee engagement and morale. One client recently expressed an idea I’ve heard from many recently: “Our meetings are soul-crushing. With COVID, it’s meetings all day, every day. Meetings were never great before, but now, they are terrible.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The good news is that improving meetings can happen at any time, and even small changes can have a tangible impact, often sooner than you think. Here’s a good place to begin.

Put your meetings through a car wash.   If you want to improve meetings, clean them up. How? There are many actions that produce positive outcomes, but here’s the most important one: Be willing to try. It is easy to feel like we have very little control over our calendars, and there is no question that leaders have tremendous demands on their time, but don’t let that stop you before you start. You may not be able to clean up all meetings, but you can clean up some, and even great meetings have room for improvement.

Start with a few simple steps.

  1. Audit and edit your existing meetings.
    Here’s a good exercise to do on a periodic basis. Make a list of all meetings you lead or participate in on a consistent, predictable basis and remove those that are low value where possible. If you aren’t sure where to begin, take some time to review the meetings on your calendar and let responses to the questions below help guide your next step about what to eliminate: Is there anything you can eliminate without further discussion? Would there be any consequences if you stopped attending this meeting? How would those who attend your meetings evaluate their effectiveness? In one sentence, describe the purpose of this meeting? Do you (or others) prepare for this meeting? If this meeting went away, would anyone care?
  2. Make small improvements.
    Take a few simple actions to make your remaining meetings even better. Start by reducing the number of participants who must attend, so you’ve got the right people in the room and everyone who attends is expected to contribute. (Amazon is reported to use the “two pizza” rule to keep meetings effective: No meeting should be so large that two pizzas can’t feed the whole group). Consider establishing ‘meeting-free’ days where possible. Cut meeting times in half or reduce the frequency of meetings altogether. At a minimum, better manage meeting time itself. Use timed agendas and timekeepers to prevent meetings from running late. While you’re at it, assign rotating roles, from notetaker to meeting facilitator to a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ – someone who is appointed to deliberately challenge or present an opposing view to an idea.
  3. Focus on meeting excellence.
    High performing teams create guidelines for how they will engage with each other during meetings, from defining a meeting purpose, to making decisions, to handling conflict, to preparing for meetings. The best teams we’ve worked with don’t leave good meetings up to chance or assume people will just automatically know what to do. They take the time to get very concrete and specific about defining the relevant behaviors, processes, or actions that will create meeting success. For instance, consider the executive team that wanted to ensure the voice of the customer was better integrated into their strategy, products, and services. So, they developed a list of concrete meeting behaviors and actions to ensure a customer orientation was reflected throughout the process. Today, if you attend a meeting at this company – no matter what the meeting topic – you’ll hear stories about customers, see a ‘customer segment’ built into every agenda, and hear meeting participants ask questions about how the customer perspective was considered when a new initiative or project was being proposed.
The best part about having fewer, better meetings is that the benefits to companies extend far beyond meetings themselves. One meeting at a time, leaders can take deliberate, positive action to advance the company’s strategy, improve their culture, increase ownership and accountability, and make positive inroads that elevate leader and team performance across the board. Imagine: Meetings could become something we want to attend, that we look forward to, that we see as a valuable place for us to learn, contribute, grow, and become even better.

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