Here’s Why That Expert Advice Isn’t Going to Fix Your Meetings

August 31, 2015

 A good meeting is efficient, gets to the point and drives results in your team. The problem is many meetings don’t end up like that. They can drag on for hours, and attendees wilt like flowers as point after tangential point blows around the conference table like a tumbleweed.

Have a quick search on Google for “broken meetings” and you’ll be inundated with advice from gurus, experts, managers and VPs all claiming that their methods will help you run an engaging, more productive, and cost-effective meeting. Still, no matter how much you implement new ideas or even just tweak what you’re doing – a quarter of the time we spend in meetings is wasted.

There are three reasons why you are still in the meeting from hell – let’s go over them and then look at the only thing that matters.

1.   Trying to change your colleagues’ behavior

As anyone who has tried to give up eating chocolate will attest, behavioral changes are not easy, especially when the amount of effort put in seems to outweigh the benefits. So when the team leader comes up with a zany new way of making meetings better and we find ourselves sitting on exercise balls and sticking post-it notes to our foreheads, we tend to rebel.

Advice from experts ranges from not using computers, to going for a walk, and even tapping away at new iOS productivity apps – there’s just too much out there to be helpful. Take The Globe and Mail’s Chris Griffiths’ advice, for example. He suggests that a team should “Stand in a circle during meetings. Avoid laptops, but keep notes.” His aim is that everyone should focus on the speaker and materials, and that there should be “no checking e-mails or taking calls.” Not taking calls is understandable, but let’s treat our team like professionals, not students. Not everyone wants to stand up in a meeting, and taking notes like that is extremely awkward.

Whatever comes naturally to each individual tends to work best for them; if Sandra from Marketing likes typing away into a Google doc, and Rabeel from Accounts is doodling in a notebook, they’re both processing information in their own way – so let them. We mustn’t overthink it – we should give people the flexibility to work in the ways they are comfortable, not impose rigidity.

2.   Don’t overcomplicate things!

Planning is certainly a key element to a successful meeting – and some online experts suggest that a focused and elaborate agenda can improve productivity and keep meeting times down. However, some take it a little too far. HBR, for example, advises you to follow a ten-step plan to create the perfect agenda, which is over-the-top to say the least.

While meticulous meeting agendas might work in your first, or even second monthly meeting, after a while your team will get fed up with all the extra effort. You’ll see them resort to their old, hastily-scribbled agendas that lead down a rabbit-hole of half-thought-out ideas and irrelevant digressions. The worst thing is, it will feel like you’re going backward.

Big improvements come with little changes. For an idea to succeed, we need it to be simple and not take up more of your colleague’s valuable time.

3.  Timing

Some experts suggest you should maximize your meeting’s productivity by minimizing the time spent talking. Some go as far as to say meetings shouldn’t last more than 15 minutes. That’s all very well for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, but for those of us with a less global focus, perhaps we do need more time talking to our colleagues. Sometimes things do take more time – we can’t always hash out our problems quickly and effectively.

The Sanaghan Group, for example, suggests using a kitchen timer to keep your meetings on track. “This…reminder will let people know how much time is left and usually focuses participant’s attention quickly. Kitchen timers are great because they have a clear signal when they go off.” Or, timers might instead end up being a distraction that disrupts thought processes and holds up the meeting. They’re annoying too.

It’s just not about the length of the meeting – that’s superficial – it’s about what comes out of it and how solutions are taken forward.

The real key to an effective meeting is leadership

It doesn’t matter if you have your meeting in a park, the conference hall or sitting on the floor of a greyhound bus – it’s all about what you achieve at the end of it. It’s about time we left the gimmicks behind and focus on what’s really important: Leadership.

A comprehensive Stybel Peabody report hits the nail on the head; for a meeting to be effective, leaders must employ behaviors that improve engagement, such as proposing ideas, asking clarifying questions, testing for consensus, and seeking information.

So what should you do as a leader?

1. First of all, you should ensure the meeting is absolutely necessary. According to Meeting King, $ 37 billion is wasted in unnecessary meetings a year. That’s a lot of coffee and donuts.

2. If the meeting is needed, as the leader you should make sure each person has something to present. People without purpose don’t need to be there. As Steve Jobs said, every person in the meeting should be responsible for something on the agenda.

3. Following from that, keep your meeting agendas clear and focused on solutions. Don’t go beyond 5 or 6 points, and try to make sure they are related and in a sensible order. It’s easy to come up with 100 problems. It’s much harder to come up with a few focused solutions.

4. Ask for attendees to prepare potential solutions to problems before the meeting. That way, you avoid unformed ideas and tedious clarifications. If there are disagreements, open up the floor to two or three suggestions and then come to a consensus as a group.

With a little grit and determination, a strong leader can revolutionize your meetings without resorting to gimmicks and tricks, and without making people work in ways they are uncomfortable. It’s time to stop looking for an easy way out. Lead your teams through successful meetings and into a more productive and happy workspace.

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