A few years ago, a survey reported in Harvard Business Review found that 71 percent of managers thought that their meetings were “unproductive and inefficient.”
As a manager, what can you do about it?
You may not be able to reform the meetings culture of your entire organization, but you can control what meetings you call and how you lead them.
It’s worth giving this real thought: Research also indicates a strong, direct relationship between meeting effectiveness and employee well-being.
What’s the Purpose of This Meeting?
A great place to start is doing a “purpose audit” of all your meetings, including the recurring ones and the one-offs. For each, you want to understand the purpose and desired outcome.
And if you aren’t sure of the purpose and outcome of a meeting? It might be a candidate for canceling.
There are generally four reasons for a manager to call a meeting. Let’s take a look at each one, along with the common pitfalls of each.
Reason #1: To Share Information
Information-sharing meetings are useful for getting everyone on the same page. The goal is to have everyone leave the room (or the Zoom call) with a shared understanding of a certain topic.
Weekly team meetings are a common type of info-sharing meeting. For the most part, they are a time for people to convey to each other: What’s going on? What’s new? What do people need to know this week?
Here’s how info-sharing meetings often devolve:
- Time creep. Info-sharing meetings can usually be quite short. One team I led was in the habit of meeting each Monday morning and going through every single task in our shared repository. It often took up to an hour. People left the room with less energy than they entered with.
To fix it, we put a hard cap of 30 minutes on the meeting and switched the format: now, each attendee had a few minutes to share their top priorities for the coming week. Not only did we each reclaim half an hour of productivity, but we no longer had to sit through a litany of tactical items that weren’t real priorities.
If your info-sharing meetings regularly spill over their end time (30 minutes is usually plenty), don’t be afraid to set a timer to alert everyone the meeting is over
- “Could’ve been an email.” If you’re calling meetings to share information that could be summarized in an email, pick the latter option.
Reason #2: To Make a Decision
When a manager faces a complex decision, they often call a meeting to get the input of their employees and other colleagues.
Nothing wrong with that, but this type of meeting can drag on into circular disagreements that last far past the point of usefulness. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “Meetings are a great trap. Soon you find yourself trying to get agreement and then the people who disagree come to think they have a right to be persuaded.”
When you call a decision-making meeting, you should know exactly whose decision this is to make. Often, you will be the one with the ultimate authority to make the decision.
By calling the decision-making meeting, you are opening a space for people to share perspectives, assess possible outcomes, maybe even play devil’s advocate. What you are not doing is trying to create a perfect consensus. Perfect consensus is usually impossible. But when the manager refuses to decide without consensus, meetings start to drag, repeat, and feel like Groundhog Day.
Once you’ve heard what your people have to say, it’s up to you to make the decision, even if some people disagree. In almost all cases, a decision made swiftly by a leader is preferable to a decision that gets deferred until everyone is sure it’s the “right” one.
Two further tips for decision-making meetings:
- In the absence of full consensus, acknowledge those who disagree. Let them know that you hear their perspective, and ask for their buy-in to the decision that is ultimately made.
- After the meeting, follow up with an email to all attendees that summarizes the decision made. Surprisingly often, people leave a decision-making meeting with different impressions of the decision made. This follow-up email creates clarity and a record to refer back to.
Reason #3: To Brainstorm
Invite a group of people to a “brainstorming meeting” and you’ll probably get hugely different reactions.
Some people will be excited — they love blue-sky thinking, “talking it out” with their colleagues.
But for other people, brainstorming with others is a nightmare. They struggle to have ideas in the moment, and the ideas other people are sharing seem, well, pretty silly.
Here are a few pointers for holding a brainstorming session that generates the best ideas from both types:
- Give people plenty of lead time. Let people know about the brainstorming meeting at least 24 hours in advance, and clearly outline the topic. This gives your introverts and solo thinkers time to generate ideas to bring to the meeting.
It’s a good idea to prepare a 1-page document beforehand and distribute to all attendees. It should explain: What’s the background of this brainstorm? What changes are we open to, and what are we not open to?
- No stupid ideas. Remember Brainstorming 101: No ideas are stupid during the session. You’re aiming for a lot of ideas, not a small set of only the “good” ones.
You’ll probably have one or two people in each brainstorming meeting who are prone to pick at each idea, raising objections and jumping to how they would be implemented. When that happens, steer the discussion back to the creative space of putting new ideas together, thinking freshly about situations, and taking new perspectives. That’s where the value of brainstorming lies — the winnowing down will come later.
- Shorter is better. Laura McClure suggests that brainstorming sessions as short as 10 minutes can be useful. While that may be too brief in many cases, once you get past the 30-minute mark — and almost definitely past 45 minutes — you’ll get diminishing returns from brainstorming time.
Reason #4: To Solve a Problem
Bringing minds together around a thorny problem is one of the best uses of meeting time. In a way, it’s like a brainstorming session with clearer parameters and goals.
But, as with the above types of meetings, problem-solving sessions can bloat into hour-plus affairs, or be repeated again and again with no solution landed upon.
Use these guidelines when you need to convene a group for problem solving:
- Invite the right people. If there are 20 people in the room, the meeting is going to become unwieldy and overlong. It’s always a balance between group size and getting plenty of perspectives, but try to choose the smallest group of people closest to the problem at hand.
- Define the problem clearly. As with the brainstorming meeting, send out a written note that explains what the problem is, along with any relevant specifics about the desired solution. When people operate from the same data and assumptions, they can problem-solve together more productively.
- Make sure you’re on the same stage of problem solving. Author and business consultant Al Pittampalli has correctly diagnosed one of the biggest difficulties in group problem solving: People are at different stages of the process and end up talking past each other.
While one person might be developing an implementation plan, another person might be thinking up new solutions. Yet another might still be trying to get a grasp on the problem itself. Pittampalli’s article on ensuring that problem-solving groups occupy the same stage is worth the read.
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In my time working with leaders, from new founders to Fortune 500 executives, almost all express some frustration with the waste of ineffective meetings. By remaining vigilant about the reason for each meeting — and then optimizing the meeting to fulfill that purpose — you return precious energy and time to yourself, your team, and your organization.