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We waste a lot of time in meetings.
I say “we,” but maybe you’re different. Maybe you have this meeting thing down to a science. Perhaps your meetings never fritter a single nanosecond on useless frivolity. Perhaps you manage a team that possesses remarkable efficiency and constant focus.
But the statistics belie such a phantom. According to Atlassian, employees spend an average of 31 hours in unproductive meetings each month. There’s a price tag attached to that wasted time: $37 billion.
That’s the annual “salary cost of unnecessary meetings for U.S. businesses.”
An estimated 15% of a business’s time are spent in meetings. For managers, it’s even worse! Middle managers spend more than a third of their time in meetings, while upper level management spends a whopping 50% of their time in meetings. (Data from a Fuze infographic)
Keep in mind that people don’t only waste time in the meeting itself. They waste time before the meeting by having additional meetings, preparing for the meeting, or commuting to the meeting. Harvard Business Review analyzed the ripple effect of a single weekly meeting at one corporation. The analysis determined that the meeting destroyed 300,000 person hours each year.
Let’s assume each team member was paid an average of $25/hr, which is very modest, considering that it was a meeting of senior-level executives. This amounts to an expenditure of $7,500,000 for a single weekly meeting.
If I saw a $7.5 million line item in the budget for “meeting” I would cancel that meeting as fast as I could get my hands on my Google calendar.
The fundamental problem with time-wasting meetings is this: humans.
Meetings involve humans. Humans have a remarkable proclivity to do their own thing, spend time on inessential activities, and generally waste time.
Is the wasted time good, or is it bad? I would argue that in some cases, “wasting time” isn’t actually such a bad thing. But when it comes to meetings, we may need some guardrails to prevent us from completely squandering valuable hours, annoying efficient people, and, worse, frustrating clients and customers.
What we need is a set of tactics that will keep us from wasting time in meetings. So, without further ado, here are those tactics.
1. Don’t have the meeting to begin with.
Before you schedule your meeting, ask a simple question: Do we need this meeting? “We’ve always had it before,” does not necessitate a need. If that question doesn’t eliminate the meeting right off the bat, then ask yourself a few more diagnostic questions.
- Will it help all the participants if we hold this meeting?
- Will it help our clients if we hold this meeting?
- Does this meeting serve the ultimate purpose of our business or organization?
- Will this meeting help the business to make or save more money?
If possible, eliminate the meeting. Nobody’s going to waste time during that meeting, because there is no meeting! Remember, there are alternatives to meetings. There’s the phone. There’s text. There’s email. You may have discussion features in your project management software interface that can function in place of a meeting. As a user of TeamGantt’s product, I’ve used the discussion feature to avoid meetings, like this:
2. Only invite the people that need to be there.
If your meeting passes the first test, then it’s time to subject it to another test. Before you send out meeting invites, ask, “Does each participant need to be there?” If you’re just starting out with this exercise, I recommend going through each name on the list to understand whether or not that person needs to attend. To make it even more specific, you can ask these questions:
- What will this person add to the discussion that we wouldn’t have if he weren’t there?
- What will this person learn or hear that she needs to hear in order to do her job more effectively.
If you’re ruthless with this technique, you may be surprised to find out how many people don’t actually need to attend. As a side benefit, these people may be overjoyed.
3. Create an explicit agenda.
At the very basic level, every agenda should have two things
- Purpose: Why are we having this meeting?
- Outcome: What will we accomplish in this meeting?
I recommend preparing a detailed agenda. Doing so keeps the meeting participants from wasting their collective time, because you’ve spent focused time deciding what needs to be accomplished. Here are several things to consider as you create a meeting agenda.
- Decide on a meeting leader.
- Decide who is talking when. It is a waste of time when you invite participants, “let’s all talk about,” or “we’ll go around the table.” Obviously, you want to be open to dialogue, but you should have a single person in mind for each agenda item.
- Avoid discussing or brainstorming. Instead, decide.
- How long will it be? Limit the meeting to 15 minutes. As John Mariotti wrote, “In a 15-minute meeting, there is no time for pontification, filibusters or storytelling.”
- Write down action items during the meeting.
- Assign each action at the conclusion of the meeting.
- Avoid scheduling follow-up meetings.
During meetings, you might have to put on your strict manager hat. If the discussion is devolving into a waste of time, a simple comment like, “Let’s try to stick to the agenda we’ve prepared,” can help the meeting get back on track. (See point #5 for more on this technique.)
4. Meet in-person or on a video call.
According to research from Fuze, people are less likely to multitask while on a video call, as opposed to the infamous conference call.
If you have the option (hint: Skype) then hold your meetings as a video call. Obviously, if you have a physical office and all the meeting participants are available, then an in-person meeting works just as well.
5. Be clear.
We often waste time in meetings because of simple communication breakdown.
The good news about communication challenges is that you, as the moderator, can help to overcome them. This process begins with the meeting agenda, and it’s aided by your input along the way.
This is what I mean by “be clear": You, as the leader, need to be clear with participants about how to improve their communication within the meeting.
Here are some situations and phrases that can help:
- When someone keeps on talking: “Thanks for making the point. Was there something else that is necessary to add?”
- When someone is being vague: “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’re understanding your point. Can you boil it down to a single sentence?”
- When someone goes off topic: “We need to stick to the agenda.”
- When someone interrupts or speaks out of turn: “Thanks, but right now, we need to give Andrew the floor.”
- When preliminary small talk needs to stop: “Okay, we only have 15 minutes, so let’s start.”
- When people are dozing off or clearly playing Candy Crush Saga on their phones under the table: “This is a short meeting. We have some important things to talk about right now, so please try to focus.”
Phrases like this can seem tension-inducing or even borderline rude. As long as you have a culture of expectation that meetings are for focused productivity, then team members will understand why you’re insisting on their cooperation. Jessica Pryce-Jones, an expert on productive meetings, told Business Insider: "You've got to have a little bit of tension [in meetings], because that's where the real value is added.”
It's time to save that precious 15%.
Efficient meetings are a remarkable thing. Generally, people come away from such meetings feeling determined, capable, and driven to do the next great thing. The net impact of efficient meetings can be hundreds of thousands of dollars in saved money, happy employees, and higher quality of work. If you can work to develop more efficient meetings, the entire business wins.