I have up on the wall in my office some of my more professional doodles that were created during the dregs of the many meetings I attend. I have to confess that some of my best art - and some of my best to-do lists - were generated during meetings about business topics. I look forward to most meetings with the same enthusiasm as a visit to my dentist.
This is yet another conundrum for me - meeting and open discussion are exceptionally important to gain critical insight for many business problems, yet most people admit that meetings are painful and often a waste of time. Meetings are becoming even more important as we work in teams that span the corporation. A study conducted by MCI in the late 90s found that the average office worker attends 2 meetings a day on average, and that in any given day over 11 million meetings are held. The respondents to the survey felt that well over 60% of the time they spent in meetings was wasted. Talk about a drain on motivation and productivity!
What can we do to improve the effectiveness of meetings? First, make sure you need to have a meeting. Often a meeting is used to inform others of new information or to update others on a project. Use email, a weblog, a Wiki or other means to provide updates.
Second, ensure the purpose of the meeting is important. Every meeting should have an agenda with a handful (5) topics or less, and if possible all of those topics should require a decision. Meetings often become discussion sessions where little is decided and few actions result.
Third, limit the number of invitees. I'm reminded of the advice for travellers when packing for a trip. Lay out everything you think you'll need, then pull out 30% of the clothes you had planned to take. Meetings need the same discipline. Invite those who have or need critical information or who must be part of the decision, and communicate the results to everyone else via email or other means.
Fourth, limit the meeting time. Create a sense of urgency in the presenters and the attendees. Most meetings should have short, tight agendas and should reach decisions quickly. The longer a meeting drags on, the more it impacts good decision making and productivity.
Fifth, take action as a result. Meetings should result in decisions and actions. Who owns the followup? What are the next steps and who should take them? These assignments ensure that what's discussed and decided it actually acted on.
Meetings are an important part of the daily work of knowledge workers. That doesn't mean they have to be long, boring and unproductive. In fact, improving meeting planning and management might be one of the best investments your firm can make - along with a stop watch.