Why meetings are a waste of time (and how to fix it)

Six steps to transform leadership meetings from talking shops to opportunities for change. 

waste of time

Management and board meetings are a fact of life. A recent study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School found leaders spend a third of their team in meetings. They can either be valuable milestones to build the team, share information and make decisions. Or, as one of my client’s once put it: “A life-sucking waste of my time!” The stakes are high. The clock is ticking on those chunky salaries if meetings are not adding value. Here are six steps to get it right:

  1. Explicitly Value Working Together: In some cases the perceived worth of exploring issues and making key decisions as a management team has plummeted. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No preparation is done. People turn up late, if at all. Often, the meeting gets cancelled at the last moment. When it finally gets started its unfocussed and lacking in energy and inspiration. The power for breaking this vicious circle sits with the leader. He or she needs to clearly signal the Rules of Engagement have changed.
  2. Agree Rules of Engagement: Ask: “How do we need to behave in order to make this meeting the best use of our time?” Agree some clear, non-negotiable rules. When I’ve encouraged clients to do this in the past it’s resulted in common sense principles such as: turn up on time, be open and honest with each other, seek to understand before responding, speak to the point, show respect, encourage full participation and accept no distractions (those nagging phone calls and emails!). When people break these rules, speak up. Self policing works.
  3. Set Clear Objectives: Is this a “Decisions-and-Actions” meeting, where the objective is to converge on a way forward? Or, a “Dreaming-Together” session where free-wheeling creativity aims to produce new thinking? Both are valid. But they’ll have a different process, style and feel. Establish the type of gathering you need. Create a clear agenda. Identify the best possible outcome. Get started.
  4. Guarantee Engagement. The whole point of a management team is one person can’t do it all! Increase participation and engagement by assigning roles to discussion leaders, having multiple presenters, and asking open-ended (rather than yes-or-no) questions.
  5. Show Leadership: Many of the innovative, people-focussed businesses I work with have an informal, non-hierarchical culture. That’s great! Listening to all sides of the argument and empowering people is important. But let’s be clear: someone needs to fairly and firmly guide a meeting. If consensus can’t be reached it’s not an excuse to duck tough decisions. People don’t expect democracy in a business – and there’s nothing more frustrating for a team than a leader who won’t lead.
  6. Follow Up: At the end of the meeting agree a list of who is responsible for each next action – and when it’s due. Hold people accountable the next time you get together. Meetings get a reputation as pointless talking shops if they don’t result in progress outside the room.

Copyright © 2013 Greg Orme All Rights Reserved