How many of us have encountered one of the following scenarios in just the last week? Someone shows up late to a meeting. Another person leaves early. People don’t know exactly what’s on the agenda. People know what’s on the agenda, but have different levels of knowledge of the material, and have to spend the first few minutes catching up. Too much personal talk erodes meeting time. There are no follow-up action items.
Does any of that sound familiar? If your company is like most others, it probably does. Meetings would probably become much more efficient if there was a counter of some sort that showed how many dollars (the number of employees multiplied by their salaries, broken out for the length of that meeting) a given meeting cost. So, given the high cost of meetings, it’s no wonder why some of the savviest CEOs have strict rules governing how they conduct meetings – but how do these rules translate to your company?
Below, we outline some of these “rules” for meetings. Even if only one appeals to you, hopefully, you come away with a takeaway that makes your meetings more efficient and productive.
Keep Meetings as Small as Possible
In the book “Insanely Simple,” former Apple employee Ken Segall recalled how during one meeting, Steve Jobs stopped cold and looked at a new employee, and asked, “Who are you?” Jobs’s point wasn’t to make this new employee feel bad, but to ensure that everyone’s time was well spent. “I don’t think we need you in this meeting,” he told her, after she explained her role. Jobs actually encouraged people to stand up in the middle of meetings and walk out if they felt like they didn’t need to be there any longer. Before sending out invites, consider: does this person need to be in this meeting? Also, if the portion of the meeting that’s relevant to that person passes, they should leave – there’s no reason to stay.
Have a Hard Start and Stop Time
This sounds basic, but it’s amazing how few meetings successfully check both of these boxes. Someone is running late, because their previous meeting is running over (ironic!) so this meeting’s start time is delayed. Or maybe the conversation gets off-track, and the meeting runs 11 minutes long. These may seem to be small infractions, but they end up compounding and becoming part of the company’s culture, ultimately costing the organization tons of time over a year or even month. Make a commitment to start on time. If someone is late, start anyway. Last point: just because a meeting runs until 3:00 doesn’t mean that you can’t wrap up at 2:21 if the agenda is completed. Parkinson’s Law states that “works expands so as to fill the time available for completion.” Be mindful of this!
Distribute a Memo to Read at the Start of Each Meeting
Even if you send out materials for people to review before a meeting, chances are, at least one or two attendees aren’t going to get around to reviewing them. Jeff Bezos has a different method: memos that catch everyone up, read silently at the start of the meeting. “We read those memos, silently, during the meeting. It’s like a study hall. Everybody sits around the table, and we read silently, for usually about half an hour, however long it takes us to read the document. And then we discuss it.” This gets around the issue of people not reviewing the material beforehand. It also commands attendees’ undivided attention, and leads right into discussion of the issue(s) at hand. The meeting starts, and everyone is on the same page, or at least has the same context.
Create A Well-Crafted Agenda
You should have an agenda that defines the objectives for the meeting. Some will take the form of a question, while others will be tasks to work through. For each objective, assign someone who’s responsible for seeing that the task gets done, or at least makes the ultimate decision on how to execute the task after discussion occurs. This prevents the “hot potato” dilemma that occurs in meetings, where everyone has plenty on their plate, and are not eager to claim more responsibilities.
Clarify and Prioritize at the Outset
Oprah asks three questions at the beginning of each meeting. What is our intention for this meeting? What’s important? What matters? This drills down to the root issue and immediately focuses the group around why they’re there. So often, we get sidetracked with tangential discussions. These questions (or your own variation of them) launch the conversation in the right direction from the first minute.
Remember Meetings Don’t Always Need to Be in a Boardroom
For any meeting, but especially one in which there’s a creative component, consider relocating somewhere a little out of the ordinary – maybe outside, or even on a walk, if it’s just two or three of you. Changes of scenery are known to engage the mind in a new way. Richard Branson likes stand up meetings because they seem to point people more directly toward the issue at hand, rather than the small talk or off-topic conversations that so often peremate meetings.
Listen – And Make Sure People Feel Empowered to Talk
Some personality types are more predisposed to speaking up in meetings than others. Introverts, for example, may have a million thoughts flying around their head, but not feel comfortable enough to share. While it shouldn’t be like teeth pulling for a meeting leader to extract ideas from attendees, they should be tuned into everyone around the table, and check-in on those who haven’t been sharing as much. That introvert may need just a small opening to change everyone’s thinking. Give them that chance. Also, when you’re listening, make sure you actually hear the person, and build on people’s ideas – don’t just nod politely and wait for your turn to talk.
If You Can, Ditch PowerPoint
Famed chief executives, including Jobs and Branson, preach alternatives to PowerPoint when applicable. In his biography with Walter Isaacson, Jobs said: “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” There are certain meetings where a visual component is necessary, but when that occurs, just rely on it as briefly as possible. Your attendees will thank you – and your meeting will be better for it.
Follow Up With Action Items
Action items are loosely related to the agenda we mentioned above. By the end of a meeting, there should be a master list of all the tasks that need to happen following the meeting’s conclusion, including one person who’s responsible for completing each task and updating the other attendees on progress, if applicable. Send this list out via email (or share it somewhere) so everyone has easy access to it.
Whatever Your Rules Are, Agree on Them and Standardize Them
As the Harvard Business Review states, the rules don’t really matter unless everyone agrees to follow them. “…When your team members take time to discuss and develop a common understanding of what your rules mean, you increase the chance that the rules will be implemented consistently and effectively in different situations.” Before considering anything on this list, consider how you’re going to achieve buy-in on your team, and hold yourselves in check. There’ll be bumps in the road, but if you make a firm commitment, it’ll ultimately become habit, and just “how things are done around here.”