Stop Meeting Like This
Here are five ways to help free your calendar of unnecessary meetings.
The notice is immediately followed by a groan and eye-roll across the entire team. There’s nothing to be said about the Thurgood File that can’t be said in one short email. Another unnecessary meeting.
No one likes them, yet most managers acknowledge it’s difficult to reduce unneeded meetings. Whether held in a conference room, an office, or over the computer, these gatherings often waste time. They continue because they hold the potential to get important work accomplished (though it seldom is done).
Wasteful meetings eat into the solo work necessary to get jobs done. They also chop up the day and make it harder for employees to refocus when they get back to their desks, according to three Harvard Business School professors writing in the Harvard Review.
Five years ago, the authors surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries: 65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their own work; 71 percent said meetings are unproductive and inefficient; 64 percent said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking; and 62 percent said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.
Those numbers tell an alarming story. In response, we spoke to managers who shared five ways they’ve cut down on the number of unnecessary meetings at their businesses.
1. Have an agenda
William McGuire can’t emphasize this one enough. When he was president of his IT consulting firm, WMWM and Associates, in Minneapolis, every meeting followed an agenda. He wrote down what the meeting would be about—a meeting title—and followed it with about three discussion points. Those topics would be discussed in order.
Should the discussion veer from the set three topics, he told staffers, he’d schedule a separate meeting to address the issues. He rarely had to schedule a separate meeting.
2. Narrow the scope
The meeting needs to be focused, McGuire said. “The Thurgood File” is too broad. What do you need to say about the file? Maybe Thurgood has asked for a change in scope for his project.
That’s a start, but even that can be narrowed. The manager can inform team members about the change in scope. Then, members can discuss three ways the change will affect project deliverables. Next, they’ll talk about how they can specifically address those changes. Assignments are made, dates are set, end of meeting.
3. Cut the attendance list
A meeting isn’t a wedding. You needn’t invite everyone you know.
Often, about half the people in the conference room don’t really need to be there. For them, a short briefing after the meeting—either verbal or over email—will suffice, said James Cahoy, a project manager at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who frequently works with bioengineers.
He’s sometimes surprised by the number of people sitting in on a discussion. Marketing people might be present at an early-stage engineering planning meeting, for example. The marketing department might not need to be involved so early on in a project, he said.
A manager should check the list of attendees twice before sending out invites. Often, a potential attendee could better spend time working rather than meeting, Cahoy said.
4. Say it with email
Could the information to be imparted in person be summarized in an email? McGuire asked. That’s a tricky one, though often if meeting hosts takes the time to write down a few notes about what they want to say, they’ll find an email will suffice, he said.
This is true especially if only three to five people were set to attend, he said. A discussion that gets going via email, even if it includes a series of “reply alls” is still more manageable than an in-person discussion. A discussion via email is less likely to go off track and to stay topical, McGuire added.
Another bonus, email comprises a written record that’s easily referred to later if needed.
Of course, the means of communication needn’t be email. Collaborative teams usually have a digital way to keep in touch; whether Slack, Trello, or instant messaging. The tool is there for a reason. So use it, McGuire said.
5. Recurring meetings need not recur
An all-team meeting held every Monday at 11 a.m. rarely needs to be held at all, said Brett Houser, a former John Deere engineer who now owns his own consulting business. Those meetings are meant for “check in” but usually there’s not much new to check in about, he said.
Team members already have been communicating all week via Slack or Trello or whatever digital method they use. They often speak with each other informally in the hall or over the phone. During those personal check-ins, everyone is either assured they’re on the same page or they learn about something that must be done on a project, Houser said.
The best idea is to hold all-team meetings when a single topic comes up that needs to be addressed, he said.
And when that happens, create a meeting agenda. And follow it, McGuire said.
Meetings are necessary, of course. They move projects forward and help teams set goals and milestones. But too many meetings cause employee burnout and fatigue and they actually lower productivity.
It’s time to limit the number of meetings truly needed to get a project done, McGuire said. As a former leader of a small team, he’s passionate on the topic.
“If a meeting isn’t needed, don’t meet,” is his simple advice.
Many employees would be thankful if their own company leaders followed that as an edict.
Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in Saint Paul, Minn. She writes about engineering issues.