Most of us can agree that there is nothing more wasteful (or frustrating) at work than a useless meeting. Sure, it can be valuable to discuss important projects and initiatives face to face, but at a certain point it becomes a case of diminishing returns. And not knowing when or where to draw the line is becoming a widespread business liability. Unnecessary meetings cost businesses a mind-blowing $37 billion a year, according to at least one report. Meanwhile, studies have shown that employees spend more than 60 hours a month in unproductive meetings—half of which they consider to be a complete waste of their time.
As my company has grown bigger, I’ve noticed how challenging it really is to keep a lid on meetings. The original team that developed Hootsuite — our platform for managing social media—was just seven people. We now have more than 800 employees and over 10 million users. Meetings are an absolute necessity, but keeping them focused and on task is a minor obsession of mine.
Here are a few key principles I’ve picked up along the way that help me and my team avoid the unproductive-meeting trap … most of the time:
Just say no. Too often in meetings, participants have no idea why they’re even present. A meeting with no clearly outlined purpose or objective is an aimless waste of time.
So one of the best ways to have productive meetings is to not attend them at all. Hone your ability to say no at work. If you get invited to a meeting that you have doubts about, don’t be afraid to reach out to the organizer and ask what exactly the purpose of your attendance is.
Then, ask yourself whether you absolutely have to meet to deal with the problem at hand. Can it instead be solved via email, phone or with a quick face-to-face exchange? If so, politely decline the meeting and suggest taking an alternate, faster route.
VIPs only—keep the guest list tight. If a meeting needs to happen, keep the guest list limited to only key players (in the context of the meeting topic). Steve Jobs was a stickler for this principle, populating meetings with essential contributors only, even as Apple grew to become a huge, global corporation. Meanwhile Google CEO Larry Page has a rule that no more than ten people can attend a given meeting.
One exercise to get started here is to try eliminating the least needed person from every group meeting. It’s certainly not personal: Let the person know that it’s simply a measure you’re taking to be respectful of her/his valuable time.
Have a dress rehearsal. Like a great performance, the most important part of a productive meeting takes place before it even starts. If you are the meeting organizer, take 5 minutes before starting time to make sure the meeting will go off without a hitch. Ensure all necessary resources are in place, and test out the AV with a dry run. If you’re using a conference tool for remote participants—like GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts—make sure it’s ready and working before people join in.
If you tend to avoid the prep work thinking it’s a waste of time, consider the collective cost of having ten people in a room twiddling their thumbs if something goes wrong. If those ten people are executives—earning executive-level salaries—even are few minutes can get very expensive.
Document concrete post-meeting actions. “No agenda, no attenda.” This is a great meeting tip I learned from my friend Cameron Herold in his book,
At the start of every meeting, take a minute to determine who’s going to take and circulate notes. In these notes, make sure to include a section titled ‘Outcomes’ or ‘Action Items.’ After the meeting, ensure these notes get circulated to all attendees so everyone is held accountable for actions that need to be taken.
Without sticking to this process, it becomes all too easy to get meeting amnesia. Ideas discussed are forgotten and never executed. This means the meeting was largely a waste of time, which leads us back to the question: why bother meeting in the first place?
Cut it short. Very few meetings need to run more than 25 minutes. I’ve been in thousands, and I know this for a fact. Most important matters can be resolved efficiently in much less time than that. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is known to have a notebook containing lists of discussion points for each meeting she attends. Once every item is crossed off, she ends the meeting—even if it’s only been ten minutes.
I’ve told my employees at Hootsuite to feel empowered to walk out of any meeting, once they no longer feel they’re gaining value from it (even with me). I’d much rather have them doing things which are a good use of their time than sitting around politely listening to information they can’t use. Try it out. It’s incredibly liberating to simply rip yourself away from a meeting you don’t feel you need to be at.
And why 25 minutes? Scheduling slightly shorter meetings gives people a small window of time between their back-to-back meetings to reply to a few pressing emails or travel to the next location. The 50-minute rule can be applied in the same way, to hour-long meetings.
The late management guru Peter Drucker once said, “One either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.” He’s right. In our modern business landscape, we seem to have forgotten that meetings do not take the place of actual work. But luckily for us, with some common sense tactics—and a willingness to say “no”—there are ways to avoid the useless meetings trap and get back to getting things done.