From Snoozefest to Action Item: The 9 Rules You Need for Productive Meetings

Never have another useless meeting again.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the white-collar world, then you’ve come to realize that most meetings are little more than time-vampires. They drain a team’s vitality, limiting the only thing that really matters: results. I’m tempted to call them useless, but that’s not really true. There’s no better way to start a project, celebrate accomplishments, make a decision, or dialogue—assuming the leader or a facilitator handles the meeting properly.

Luckily, you can effectively corral meetings into smaller timeframes and manipulate them to your advantage, so they become assets rather than liabilities.

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Tightly Focused

I recently reread Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Most of his points resonated with me, but there’s one we’ll probably never agree upon. A prime failure he cites for the ousted CEO of his fictitious company was the man’s tendency to hold tightly scheduled executive meetings that covered agendas scheduled well in advance—meetings that invariably ended precisely when he said they would. Color me contrary, but in my work with corporate leaders, they long for such a thing. Meetings are scheduled last minute, have no agenda, and don’t end on time. Now, perhaps this strategy might prove too constraining for a chief executive deciding the fate of an entire company, however, but that’s not all bad.

Economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell, who once said, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” While Sowell probably had his tongue planted firmly in cheek at the time, there’s still some truth in his statement. Those who actually enjoy meetings might prolong them. And truthfully, meetings can be enjoyable—a point I’ll return to in a later section—but there’s no reason why you still can’t streamline the process and slash meeting times to reasonable lengths. Here are some thoughts on how to do it:

1. Ask yourself: is this meeting necessary? Treat the meeting like a car trip during an energy crisis: does it waste a valuable resource for insufficient gain? Do you have to meet at all? Can you avoid a face-to-face and still remain effective? If all you need to do is exchange information, can you do it via email or a phone call? I know from personal experience you can handle most issues though electronic media. I work with numerous people daily, including my IT guy and other consultants, whom I rarely need to talk to on the phone, much less meet with face-to-face; and it wouldn’t surprise me if the same were true for you, whether you work in an SMB or a massive multinational.

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2. Start on time. Whether holding a face-to-face meeting or a teleconference, you’re not obligated to wait for stragglers. If they can’t keep track of their schedules, that’s their challenge, not yours. Some participants may show up late, but don’t make the mistake of backpedaling to bring them up to speed, because then you’re wasting everyone else’s time. Just like in school, they can borrow someone’s notes to catch up, or get the minutes later.

3. Embrace facilitation. Either pick someone to facilitate the meeting, or do so yourself. The facilitator follows the agenda, keeps people on topic, acknowledges speakers, limits speaking time so one person doesn’t dominate the meeting, encourages new ideas, and urges the introverted to speak up.

4. Help your attendees relax. Meet at a place where the normal office noises don’t intrude on your discussion. This will help the discussion proceed more smoothly. If you can, reserve a distant or soundproofed conference room; otherwise, consider holding the meeting at another location where no one will disturb you.

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5. Have an agenda and stick to it. This should be one of your facilitator’s jobs. Send everyone a copy of the agenda at least 48 hours in advance, so they know what you’re planning to discuss. Stay on topic—and don’t repeat anything unnecessarily. If one person needs more explanation, chat offline about specific issues or explain it in more detail, rather than wasting everyone else’s time covering it all over again.

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6. Tighten up the meeting’s structure. None of the things I’ve listed here need to slow your meeting down. You can, however, use them to make the meeting more bearable, and make a virtue of a necessary evil. Always clarify the decisions you need to make, actually make those decisions, stay on track, strive for a team agreement, end on time, maintain team relationships, recognize milestones and accomplishments, and celebrate wins.

7. Emphasize solutions. Rather than just bringing up problems, have each speaker propose a solution to the problem as well. Don’t waste time on those willing to complain but not fix. Make sure everyone knows this in advance. When someone offers a solution, spend a little time discussing its merits, and if you decide it’s worthwhile, the person can further explore the possibility.

8. Limit the number of breaks. Meetings often take longer than necessary, just because people can’t seem to return from breaks on time. How often have you seen everyone return right when they’re supposed to after the break? Stragglers almost always disrupt the flow of a meeting. To avoid this, don’t just restart promptly—cut back on the number of breaks in the first place. If the meeting is 90 minutes or less, a break isn’t necessary at all.

9. Limit the number of attendees. “Showing the flag” is a waste of time. If someone doesn’t need to attend the meeting, don’t invite them. You can send interested parties a copy of the minutes later on. The late Steve Jobs was famous for ejecting people from meetings when he didn’t think they belonged. He wasn’t rude about it, but he didn’t hesitate to ask someone, “Why are you here?” and then ask them to leave if they had no contributions to make. Keep your meetings small, so everyone can have their say without consuming too much productive time. Apply Jeff Bezos’ famous Two Pizza rule: invite no more people than you can feed with two pizzas (no more than 7 people).

The All Important Equation

If Einstein had been an economist, his most important equation wouldn’t be E = MC2, it would be Time = $$$. He probably would have found a mathematical way to prove it. But any business person worth their salt doesn’t need proof—they can feel it in their bones.

The solution for long, boring meetings: make them short and enjoyable. This requires a delicate balance and careful preparation, as outlined here; but the results will be well worth every second spent on it. Ultimately, you’ll make quicker decisions, pave the way for flexible strategic execution, and boost your productivity. There’s no reason for the process to be sterile, and it doesn’t have to waste your time.