Like most business owners, I spend my fair share of time in meetings. Catch-ups with clients, work-in-progress meetings with the team, briefing sessions with writers, workshops with the accountant. Outside of work, there are the endless meetings with my apartment strata committee, where we mill around, inhaling the fragrance of the bins, and arguing over the existence of someone’s cat*.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that, no matter what you call them, meetings are often an enormous waste of time. I walk away feeling ripped off and frustrated, wondering what problem we were trying to solve, and how on earth we’ll ever solve it, all while knowing that the answer will probably be to arrange another damn meeting.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. David Pich, CEO of the Australian Institute of Management, tells me that most people struggle with inefficient meetings – himself included. “Unfortunately, people tend to hold meetings without really thinking things through. They invite people who don’t really need to be there, just to cover all bases. That means you can easily end up sitting there for no good reason at all.”
If meetings are so inefficient, why do we still have them?
People have been holding meetings, in various forms, since the dawn of civilisation. Think Knights of the Round Table, ancient Athenian assemblies, tribal councils, and so on. The concept of the business meeting is really just an evolution of this trend. Particularly before telecommunications developed, getting people together in one place was a good way (in fact the only way) to discuss matters of shared interest and make important decisions.
The problem is that now, we’ve drifted onto autopilot. The decisions we’re making and the topics we’re discussing often aren’t that important. We’re so used to meetings, we call them at the drop of a hat. And because our calendars are so clogged, we stop taking meetings seriously – or putting in the effort required to make them worthwhile.
So what can we do about all this time wasted on meetings?
In my experience, there are a few very simple techniques that can make a massive difference. They’re not always easy to stick to (or convince others to stick to) but I can guarantee it’s worth persevering. Ready? Here goes.
1. First of all, ask what needs to happen as a result of this meeting.
Whether you’re calling the meeting, or just being asked to attend, this is an extremely valid question to ask. What is the point of bringing people together? What issue needs to be discussed, debated or solved? What is the desired outcome?
Perhaps you need to get a budget signed off. Maybe you need a strategy approved. You might even need to reach an agreement on a contentious subject. Whatever the case, it’s essential to work out the purpose of the meeting before you do anything else. If there’s no clear point, there should be no meeting. The same applies if the issue is straightforward, minor, or involves few people – these things can usually be solved over email.
“Too few people look at meetings in terms of the decisions that need to be made,” agrees Pich. “This is really the one question you should ask upfront. From there you can determine who can actually make that decision.”
Which brings us to point two…
2. Decide who actually needs to be there.
Once you’ve identified your goal, work out who needs to be involved. Who are the key players that can make this happen? Who can you absolutely not afford to leave out? If these key players can’t be there, is there any point meeting up at all? (Spoiler alert: the answer is no).
“People tend to make assumptions about who holds the power in businesses,” says Pich. “It happens to me a lot as a CEO – people think that as the most senior person in the room, it’s me who’ll be deciding things. But this is not always the case. If it’s an IT matter, for example, I’ll delegate decision-making to a team member – so if he or she is there, I don’t need to be. In fact, inviting people who aren’t involved in the decision-making process can actually be quite disruptive.”
When you’re drawing up your list of invitees, also consider whether everyone needs to be present in person, and for the whole saga. If you need the CEO to green light a simple decision, it’ll be much easier to convince them to dial in for ten minutes at the end rather than sacrificing an entire precious hour (plus travel time). When you whittle down your attendees, it’s also easier to agree on a time and location that works for everyone.
Finally, remember that it works the other way too: you don’t need to go to a meeting just because you’ve been invited. It’s not your sister’s wedding. If you don’t feel your presence will add anything, politely decline and explain why. Your time is precious, and (unless you’re hanging for some limp pseudo-sandwiches and meaningless chit chat) you can probably find a better way to spend it than in yet another meeting. Pich also stresses this point, telling me he only accepts around 20% of meeting requests that he receives.
3. Set your agenda.
Once you know what needs to be decided and who will be in the room, work out the structure.
“In Australia, we’re pretty laid back – but the downside is that it can quickly slip into disorganisation,” says Pich. “In my mind, an agenda is key. People can get all processy about this, but really it just needs to be a list of topics we need to cover. Tell me what you want to talk to me about, so at the very least I can prepare. I also like it when I see an agenda with time allocated to each topic, so I can see how long we’ll be spending on what.”
On that note, Pich reiterates that preparation is vital if you want to use time wisely. “There’s nothing worse than being asked to contribute to a discussion you have no idea about. So typically on a Sunday I look at the week ahead, and prepare for what’s coming up, whether that involves background reading or talking to other people. Then in the meeting I’ll be in the right headspace. If a discussion is sprung on me, that’s when I’ll be more likely to say something on the spot and change my mind later. Decisions usually require a bit of reflection beforehand. If people aren’t given time to prepare, they just can’t operate at their best.”
4. Be ruthless with time management.
Speaking of optimal operations, it should go without saying that punctuality is pivotal. How how many times have you sat around playing on your phone waiting from Gerry from Sales to grace your meeting with his presence? Well, those days need to end. People need to show up on time – otherwise you’re wasting more money than a fleet of taxis. Gerry and his slack buddies need to get with the program.
A company I once worked for introduced a rule where if all attendees hadn’t appeared within five minutes of the meeting time, the meeting was cancelled. This rule worked a treat, and I recommend it. People didn’t like it at first, but they adapted. And, most importantly, they started taking meetings seriously.
When you kick off the meeting, it’s also a good idea to appoint a time keeper, who’ll keep an eye on both the clock and agenda – and can nudge things along should you get stuck on a particular point. Life isn’t like an episode of Masterchef – not every challenge can neatly be completed in the time allotted. But if someone’s keeping their eye on the big picture, you can at least keep things moving, get something done, and park the thorny subjects to come back to later (or delegate them to a sub-committee).
According to Pich, it’s important to open the meeting properly. “And by that, I mean simply stating the purpose of the meeting and quickly summarising the points you’ll cover. Quite often we forget to do this.
“Another small but important thing is to introduce the people present and explain why they’re there – so we all know what stake each other has in the meeting.”
5. Don’t forget to follow through.
So you’ve had your meeting, covered your topics, reached your conclusions and time is almost up. How do you wrap things up – and make sure people don’t forget the details the moment they leave the conference room?
“Allow time to summarise what’s been said,” says Pich. “Make sure someone’s been taking notes. Then email these through, along with action points, to everyone who’s attended. People appreciate clear direction. And if you don’t use your meeting to drive action, you risk having to endure yet another meeting to go through…well, exactly what you’ve just gone through.”
And frankly, even Gerry has better things to do than that.
*Cat technically belongs to me but let’s just keep that between ourselves.
Emma Heath is a Sydney-based communications professional and founder of copywriting & tone of voice consultancy Words By Nuance.