Your Meetings Stink: How to improve your company's meeting hygiene
In 2015, I tried a new approach at work: I cancelled all my internal meetings. I only attended meetings that added value to my work and had a clear agenda, and told everyone else to email me. This extreme shift liberated me from one of the biggest pain points I and others experience at companies: the hours wasted in poorly run meetings.
A 2014 study found that 15% of an organization’s time is spent on meetings and senior executives rated more than half the meetings they attended as “ineffective” or “very ineffective.” So why do we keep going?
We rely on meetings because we don’t trust our colleagues to do work without them. We need meetings to hold us accountable for the work we can’t seem to get done. We get caught up in the habit of recurring meetings, RSVP’ing “yes” to a series of meetings that we passively attend for months, sometimes years. We don’t stop to ask ourselves, is this still the right meeting to be having now?
We’re also afraid to stir the pot. We don’t want to tell our colleague that his meetings are useless and drag on too long. We tell ourselves it’s easier to just attend, knowing we can multitask or tune out entirely.
Good meeting hygiene starts at the top. So if you’re a manager or a director of a team, what can you do?
If you’ve been bathing in dirty bath water, the first step to getting clean is to drain the tub.
Stop going to meetings. Seriously. Cancel your team’s internal meetings for two weeks. I’m not saying ignore your meetings with clients or potential backers. I’m talking about the pile on of internal check-ins, stand ups, updates, and presentations. Delete your recurring meetings. Consider scheduling work blocks in place of the meetings you once had. During the two weeks, pay attention to the experience of having dedicated hours to do actual work, instead of being interrupted every half hour to attend the next huddle. How many hours a week are you getting back? What meetings did you actually miss? How did communication within your team change?
Once your meeting detox period is over, regroup and reflect. Get feedback from your team to determine what meetings are absolutely critical. Get clear about the purpose of each meeting, how and when the meeting will run, why it needs to be a meeting, who needs to be in the room and why. You need to be able to justify every aspect of each meeting you schedule and each meeting you attend. Hold other people accountable to this same standard.
If someone invites you to a meeting and can’t clearly articulate why you need to be there, that’s a flag. If the reason for your being there is “to get an update” - ask yourself, can I delegate this? Can I schedule a short workblock to review this powerpoint later? Can someone who is critical to the meeting give me an update at lunch? Every meeting scheduled is an opportunity to negotiate and figure out if your time is best spent there or elsewhere.
Commit to Norms:
To help your meetings stay focused and effective, agree upon a set of meeting norms for your company or team. A few norms I recommend include starting and ending on time (yes, even if a couple of people are running late), having a clear agenda sent in advance, and assigning a facilitator to keep time and help people stay on track. You’ll be surprised how quickly people will adapt. People who don’t have clear agendas will cancel their meetings. People who tend to monopolize the conversation will learn to step back with the support of a strong facilitator. People who just love to go “ten minutes over” will find themselves talking in a room alone, as other folks have disbanded at the agreed upon end-time. And people will have guidelines that allow them to hold one another accountable.
Think about alternatives to your company’s standard meeting structure. I’ve worked at companies that adopted Holacracy’s tactical meeting structure, a fast-paced and highly structured meeting that allows you to triage a number of topics. Quick stand up meetings are showing up more and more at tech companies and startups, where literally standing up to review top line priorities and concerns can help a group come together, and get a start on the day, without cutting into valuable work time. Utilize task management systems like Asana that create more transparency and help decrease status-update meetings.
Like any type of hygiene, meeting hygiene requires regular and intentional maintenance. Give yourself permission to overhaul your meeting culture and you’ll be surprised how much more work you and your team will get done.