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MEETINGS: Less Time, More Productivity, Bigger Returns

Last week I was training a group of managers on facilitation skills.  When I asked them what they particularly wanted to accomplish in the training, they spoke about needing to address the following:

· 3-4 hour meetings that go on and on with little accomplished by the end
· Going off-track on “rabbit chases” that leave the team/group de-energized and frustrated
· Lack of focus in discussions resulting in few action items and decisions made
· Unruly, dominating people who take over meetings and push their own agendas
· Virtual meetings between multiple sites where contribution is marginal
· Disagreements in approach and/or decision making that stymie forward momentum

As most of you know, the data on meetings is horrible: typically 50% are considered a waste of time; 90% of people admit to daydreaming; only 60% know the purpose of their meeting; 25% use agendas distributed in advance and less than 30% say decisions are properly recorded and distributed. Yet, in any given day there are 17 million meetings going on, with the average professional person spending 1.7 hours per day in meetings, and the average executive spending 4-6 hours/day in meetings.*

Obviously, we have a huge failure cost (pink elephant in the room) that needs to get addressed. However, I find that as frustrated as people are with their meetings, they are ironically not always willing to make the changes necessary to make them different. Let’s look at what some of those changes might include:

1. Most meeting time is consumed with sharing information that the majority of people already know. Boring! What about sharing the information ahead of time and using the meeting to discuss questions, concerns, and ideas related to the information? The answer is often: people won’t read the information ahead of time.  Well, they will if no time is spent bringing people up to speed in the meeting, and those who have read the information look good as a result. Most effective meeting agendas put the priority on planning, problem solving and decision making and move information to a minor role.

2. Meetings are typically facilitated by the same person who is leading the group/team.  As a result, the individual does 90% of the talking and no facilitation is going on.  Facilitation is a neutral role, with the focus on “making it easy” for others to participate.  The project leader, project manager, section head or any other designated leader should not facilitate when he/she need to be providing direction and support to the team.  The facilitation role can rotate among the various team members so each person has the opportunity to “sit at the head of the table” and develop new competencies.  This strengthens the overall team enormously and allows the leader role to be positioned correctly as a subject matter expert.  However, we are not born facilitators; it’s a learned skill that requires training and practice.

3. If we calculate the cost of people sitting in a meeting, it truly is huge.  Time is money.   For example 8 managers in a meeting at a labor cost (salary plus benefits) of $50/hour will be $400/hour.  Is their value equal to the cost?  Certainly not, if some are sitting there and making little or no contribution.  That’s why we suggest utilizing the roles of facilitator, scribe, timekeeper and process observer within the group/team, rather than using an admin to scribe, for example.  If these roles are regularly rotated, all members make a contribution to meeting effectiveness at various points and take ownership in the outcomes.    No longer will a person be able to show up and expect the meeting to just happen.

4. I’m always struck by the statistic about agendas: 75% of meetings do not have agendas distributed ahead of time.  That’s like getting in the car (for me in Vermont) and deciding to go to Chicago with no map.  Recently I was in a meeting of senior leaders where their agenda had no desired outcomes for the topics, no timeframes, no lead presenters, and no prioritization of agenda items.  It was just a list of items on a piece of paper.  Agendas are so much more than that.  The very first change for your agenda (assuming you do have one) is to identify and write out the desired outcome for every item listed on the agenda.  Then put agenda items in priority order so the most difficult items are discussed up front when people are most alert and engaged.  Put a tentative timeframe for each item and identify a person (someone else on the team) who will kick off the agenda topic discussion.  Most importantly, distribute the tentative agenda at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting.  

*Data compiled for various sources including Microsoft Survey and MCI Conferencing Survey.

I challenge you to implement these four improvements in your meetings and watch the results. I always encourage people to try the changes for six meetings before evaluating whether to continue with them or not. The behaviors are new and different and require some practice.

Needing more on meeting efficiency?  Download our FREE Skinny-Mini-Meeting Tool Kit today!

  • Can you send me a copy of the sample agenda preparation form and template? Thanks.

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    We have updated the links so that you can now receive both templates. I will also email them to you – just wanted to let the rest of the visitors to this post know.

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