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10 Steps to Productive Meetings

Meeting Overload

If you’ve ever watched an episode of NBC’s “The Office” you know exactly what unproductive meetings look like. The tragic news is many real world meetings too closely resemble a fictional Michael Scott get together. Stories of “death by meeting” are a well represented part of corporate folklore for good reason – unplanned, unnecessary, uninspired, or otherwise unproductive meetings are a colossal waste of time and resources. In today’s post I’ll provide you with 10 steps to creating meetings that produce real results.

Over the years I’ve found that you can tell quite a bit about a person by how many meetings they call or attend. I have consistently found the most productive people call very few meetings, and likewise they rarely attend meetings where their presence isn’t absolutely necessary. Whether meetings are held at the board, executive, management or staff levels, or whether they are small project related meetings or large company-wide meetings, the same basic principles apply to making meetings effective.

Early in my career I worked for a company where the CEO loved to have meetings. Meetings were held ad-nauseum about virtually every topic under the sun. Mostly we held meetings for the sake of meetings for one reason: Our CEO was a poor leader who couldn’t make decisions. Regrettably these meetings rarely resulted in anything being accomplished. Because the meetings were poorly conceived and poorly facilitated, it turned out that most meetings just ended-up being rehashing sessions for the subjects not resolved in prior meetings – a theme most of you are probably all too familiar with.

Unproductive meetings not only serve little purpose, but they waste one of the most precious resources that a company has…time. One of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to take its top talent away from productive activities and sequester them away for a mind-numbing babble session. Bad meetings are not only a productivity drain, but they also can cause a decline in morale and a lack of confidence in leadership.

I recently read a brilliant Kindle book entitled: Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli (@Pittampalli on Twitter)- I highly recommend this book. Al’s book is a fast read that absolutely nails the problem with most meetings, which is: “most meetings delay decisions rather than enable them.” The following excerpt is representative of what you’ll find between the covers of Al’s book:

Q: “What if I end up making a decision that not everyone agrees with?”
A: “Congratulations are in order. You’re a leader.”

The simple truth of the matter is that most meetings are not productive – they kill productivity. If leaders would spend more time leading and less time presiding over useless meetings the world would be a better place. The reality is that there is no excuse for holding a non-productive meeting. I won’t attend a meeting unless it is a good use of my time.  You won’t see my smiling face in attendance at a meeting unless I know why the meeting is being called, who’s going to be in attendance, what the objectives (preferably hard deliverables) are for the meeting, and unless an agenda has been circulated in advance of the meeting allowing for proper preparation.

A leaders role in a meeting is absolutely critical. A meeting isn’t an excuse to pontificate from the bully-pulpit, but to listen, extract information and gather intelligence. A leaders role is not to be right and to try and convince attendees they should be in agreement, but to seek the right outcome regardless of whether dissenting opinions exist. Once everyone in attendance is aligned around the expected outcome for a meeting, the leader’s role should quickly transition into observation and facilitation mode (mediation mode only if necessary). Again, the end game is to make decisions, which drive actions that are in alignment with the desired outcomes – it’s just not that hard…

While Al’s book calls for a meeting revolution, the truth of the matter is that meetings are not going to disappear, so rather than call for an end to meetings, let’s focus on how to make them productive. I’ve led meetings according to a standard for a number of years now based on 10 simple rules. Following is a more detailed breakdown of Myatt’s 10 rules for productive meetings:

  1. Culture: Create a culture where meetings are the exception and not the rule. When meetings are a rare occurrence the laws of scarcity will apply causing them to be valued as a highest and best use activity and not a nuisance. 80% of meetings never need to take place, so invest your energy in the 20% that do. If leadership doesn’t adhere to this standard then it will be impossible for the rest of the company to do so.
  2. Purpose: Some meetings are strategic and some are tactical – know the difference and don’t confuse the two. Remember, the purpose of a meeting is to create solutions – not problems, and to alleviate frustration  – not cause it. This only happens through some form of value creation, and value is created by action. Meetings should not be held to report things, but to do things. Discussing a problem only adds value if the discussion leads to solving the problem. Hoping for an opportunity is not the same thing as creating one. Ideating is not innovating. The bottom line is meetings that don’t drive action are useless – no exceptions. (see deliverables below).
  3. Scheduling: I’m not a big fan of impromptu meetings (I refer to these as “drive-bys”). Creativity and innovation are stimulated by structure, not stifled by it. If the subject is worth addressing, it is worth planning for and preparation takes time. A detailed agenda for a meeting should be circulated in advance to all attendees so that they have time to prepare to make a valuable contribution. Lastly, all meetings need to have a start time and an end-time. Don’t abuse other people’s time and expect them to appreciate you for it.
  4. Deliverables: If the objectives for the meeting are not clearly articulated as a defined set of deliverables your meeting is not worth having. The purpose of a meeting is to accomplish something, and you can’t accomplish something if that something is vague, ambiguous, ethereal or has not been defined to begin with. Set individual and collective expectations ahead of the meeting. Remember, the richness of meetings can be correlated in direct proportion to the amount of work done prior to the meeting.
  5. Mindset: Meetings must have a relaxed, non-intimidating, and professional atmosphere. If candor and trust aren’t fostered within a framework of accountability, no amount of talking will overcome the tension and animosity always lingering just beneath the surface.  Again, the purpose of a meeting is to be productive – to actually accomplish something. Leave the political correctness at the door. Meetings aren’t for coddling, and neither should they resemble a dance contest. Meetings must be challenging, welcome dissenting opinions, and encourage candid discourse. If people know that they are valued, respected and won’t be publicly embarrassed they will come prepared to deliver.
  6. Attendees: Too may people equals a circus and not a meeting. Other than a shareholder meeting, Christmas Party, an organizational (department, division, or company wide) gathering, or other special event, meetings should be limited to 10 or fewer attendees. Not everyone can or should attend a meeting, and far too many people receive invitations to meetings for no other reason than to appease their fragile egos. Don’t invite people to a meeting who have nothing to contribute, and don’t hold a meeting unless the key contributors can be in attendance. If a key person is not able to attend the meeting, reschedule for a time when they can be in attendance. If you’re coming to a meeting not prepared to make a valuable contribution why are you coming?
  7. Leadership: Someone must be in charge of the meeting. All meetings should have a meeting chair who’s responsible for keeping the meeting on point, on schedule and achieving the meeting objectives. Bad meetings are a result of bad leadership.
  8. Focus: Blackberrys, iPhones, and other PDA’s need to be turned-off. Nothing can be accomplished when people are not giving 100% focused attention to the issue at hand. If a meeting is important enough to attend, it should demand the participant’s full attention.
  9. Location: Don’t fall into the trap of going off-site unless it is absolutely necessary. Off-site meetings are expensive not only in terms of the hard dollars spent on facilities, but also in terms of the commute time to and from the meeting. You should have the discipline to use your facilities in an uninterrupted fashion. Make it known that meetings are not to be interrupted unless it is an emergency (an “emergency” needs to be defined as both urgent and important).
  10. Assess and Evaluate: The meeting chair should conduct a critical post-meeting analyses to determine what went well, what went wrong, were the right people in attendance, were the people prepared, were the deliverables met, etc. The bottom line is that companies that have great meetings have great meetings for a reason…they work on it.

It’s your time, and if you choose to spend it in meetings, make sure you spend it wisely….Please share your thoughts and observations in the comments below. Bonus points for those willing to share their “worst meeting ever” story…

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    Al Pittampalli

    August 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks for the shoutout, Mike. #7 is critical. It’s amazing how many meetings don’t have a pilot. When strong leadership is present, the frustrating parts of meetings we all hate tend to disappear.

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      Mike Myatt

      August 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm

      No thanks necessary Al. Your book should be required reading for all leaders. Thanks for stopping by Sir.

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    Peter Videv-SVN NYC

    August 31, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I use the $$$ approach. At the beginning of the meeting I write down the hourly salary of everyone in the meeting. Gives me an idea of how much it’s costing to me or the company. It’s another way to evaluate if a meeting should be held or not.

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      Mike Myatt

      August 31, 2011 at 6:07 pm

      Great tip Peter – Doing the math can be especially eye-opening when you have high priced talent in the room. Thanks for sharing Peter. 

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    Anonymous

    August 31, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I love this post, Mike. Absolutely on target! 
    @HeatherEColeman:twitter 

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      Mike Myatt

      August 31, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Heather.

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    Mark Oakes

    August 31, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Mike

    I agree with all your points

    I think most meetings are a waste of intellectual capital, time and corporate resources. Your points provide a clean roadmap if  they’re absolutely essential. Otherwise, I think they’re the product of a legacy mindset fraught with problems.

    I’ve banned meetings for the most part. Historically,  I found that many of the meetings I (or my managers) called were veiled attempts to justify our roles, ‘create work’ or capture information that should already be at our fingertips…what a waste. I have phone calls with my management team but we hold these to a few minutes and deal with ‘exceptions reporting’, proposed solutions and accountability assignment/acceptance/deliverable dates.

    If leaders do a good job of articulating ‘role performance deliverables’, fostering a culture of execution and facilitating communication through a variety of electronic means, the face-to-face formal meeting diminishes in importance. IMO, as we continue to move toward virtual corporate architectures, ‘The Meeting’ will eventually be viewed as a failed management approach of a bygone era.

    M

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      Mike Myatt

      August 31, 2011 at 6:22 pm

      Great insights Mark – I can remember first reading of “The Virtual Corporation” concept back in the late 70’s – what seemed so forward thinking back then has become the norm for lean leadership models today. I like to think of it like this: The need for communication, collaboration and sharing has increased, but the need for meetings has decreased due to time/speed/cost/technology advantages of alternate options. Thanks for sharing Mark.

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    Dave Brand

    August 31, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Mike,

    I too recently read the book: ‘Read This Before Our Next Meeting’ by Al Pittampalli and was struck by the number of key points Al made throughout his book. Many meetings today are in fact ‘broken’ and Al was advocating people take a serious look at how and why they meet. 

    What I like about your post is that it provides a starting point or bridge to begin to move us from the current state to a ‘better place’ when it comes to meetings. I think everyone wopuld benefit from taking a serious look at how we use meetings and my belief is that what you and Al have shared should be good catalysts towards getting meetings moving in the right direction.
     
    So thanks for sharing Myatt’s 10 rules for productive meetings.  These are great markers for someone who wants to get more done when they do meet and to have clarity around why to meet (or not meet).

    Dave Brand

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      Mike Myatt

      August 31, 2011 at 10:35 pm

      Thanks Dave – I agree that most organizational frameworks for meetings are broken. I really like Mark’s perspective and believe that more companies will begin to impose a more logical standard for how to ensure the only meetings held are productive ones. Thanks again for stopping by Dave. 

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    Anonymous

    September 1, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Mike,

    I worked for quite some time for an organization that was quite “meeting happy.” sometimes I would face a day of 5 or 6 meetings and realize that nothing much was going to move off my desk that day. I found it frustrating. But what was worse was that I was virtually inaccessible to my team, and my superiors were inaccessible to me, unless they happened to be in the same room. A nasty side effect of these gatherings is that no one knows where anyone else is. If something comes up that needs escalation, it can take a great deal of effort to track down someone needed to make a decision.

    All your points are spot on: Purpose, organization, leadership and deliverables well defined can help things happen rather than prevent them from happening.

    Thanks for the post–this needs saying, reading, and absorbing.
    – Roy

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      Mike Myatt

      September 1, 2011 at 1:02 am

      Hi Roy:

      Astute observations – Your identification of the ripple effect of also neutralizing team members cut-off from leadership sequestered in meetings is lost on many. Thanks for sharing Roy.

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    Greg Waddell

    September 1, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Mike: Another great post! I particularly felt identified with your point about deliverables. If I may philosophize a bit, I think this is a problem that is rooted in Western culture and its Greek heritage for which WORDS held some kind of power in themselves. Plato held this view to such an extent that his life’s goals was to write an exhaustive dictionary defining the essence of every conceivable thing in the universe. In practice for us, this means that people often confuse talk with having accomplished something. After a nice long discussion, everyone gets up from the table feeling like something was accomplished–after all, we talked about it for an hour. In reality, however, nothing is accomplished apart from ACTION. So, I offer a great big “Here Here” for demanding deliverables. Otherwise, don’t waste my time.

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    Steven Potter

    September 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Mike,
     
    I enjoyed your post and your 10 Points are an excellent summary of the key ingredients for a productive meeting.
     
    I have one suggestion: Divide #2 “Purpose” into four distinct sub-groups, and use the labels recommended by Patrick Lencioni in “Death by Meeting”:
     
    2A: The Daily Check-in (A stand-up meeting; Max of 5 min; no agenda)
    2B: The Weekly (or bi-weekly) Tactical Meeting
    2C: The Monthly Strategic Meeting
    2D: The Quarterly Off-Site Review
     
    Each of these meeting types has a unique focus and serves a specific purpose. Focusing on a particular context helps to build creativity and engagement, and it eliminates the distracting shifts from tiny details to grand plans, or from “what do we need today?” vs. “where are we going next year?”.
     
    Another benefit is that any “off topic suggestions” can be acknowledged, recorded and sent to their proper venue, without a major disruption to the flow of the discussion.
     
    When there is a general consensus that each of these meeting types adds value, and the attendees know when and where to direct their input, much can be accomplished in little time. With a common set of rules and expectations about how meetings are run, even those less-than-confident participants can step forward and take a leadership role, which is a win-win for everyone.
     
    @stevencpotter
     
     
     

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    Michael Brown

    February 21, 2012 at 5:46 am

    Kevan Hall makes a great point in his book “Speed Lead” that there are two types of team:  Spaghetti teams, where everyone needs to know what everyone else is doing, and Star teams, where everyone operates on a point of the star, and the only person who needs to know what everyone is doing is at the hub, and is the Leader.

    If you lead a Star team but run Spaghetti meetings, you are wasting time and will cause frustration.  Star teams need a different purpose for the meeting, eg to energise, share ideas, make the human connection.

    My “worst ever” meeting might include the one where 25 minutes into a discussion someone said “Forgive me for asking, but what are we discussing here?”  Or the one where we spent all afternoon dancing round a topic, reach an agreement (or so we thought), I scuttled off and implemented it, and had the CEO (who chaired the meeting) come in next morning and tell me he had changed his mind (and then berated me for having gone ahead so quickly!) 

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