Few people think that they should spend more time in meetings. Many feel that their day is consumed with meetings, leaving little time to do other value-creating work, or even little time to think, reflect and plan.
We often hear the complaint: we have too many meetings, they take too much effort to feed, and they are not effective. Why is that?
There is hope. One organization we worked with reduced the number of items coming to their executive committees by 50% and have sustained it to date, now several years on.
In our research, and improvement projects related to meetings, we have come to some conclusions about the causes of the following three questions. A partial list:
Why so many meetings?
- Mindset. We have complex, effective systems to budget money – and regular reporting and adjustment of financial forecasts. However, money is renewable. Time is not. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both agree – time is pretty much the only thing that they cannot buy. And yet, we put few or no controls on how we spend our time. Our mindset is effectively that we don’t need to manage time as carefully as we manage money – so it gets wasted.
- Busy = little or no reflection. Busy people who spend their entire days in meetings rarely, if ever, stop and reflect on whether a meeting is the best way to proceed – they just blindly hurry to organize another meeting.
- Too many priorities. As long as organizations take on too many priorities, they can expect to see too many meetings. We once spoke with a senior executive of a 2,000-person branch who was complaining of too many meetings, and asked: “how many priorities do you have this year”. He answered with pride, “Fifty-two.” We could have gone further and asked him to name all fifty-two – but we are pretty sure that he could not have done so. “Priority” means “before”, or “ahead of”. So, he was saying that these 52 priorities were ahead of how many, five hundred and twenty priorities? Not being clear about where you are going and not having a concise plan where you put your critical “must-do, can’t fail” priorities first is a sure recipe for too many meetings. Imagine how many meetings it takes to feed 52 priorities, versus 10 priorities. For more on this, see our content on Lean Strategic Planning.
- Failure Demand: when people do not know—or agree on-- the expected outcomes of work, they need a meeting to “align”. When people are missing crucial information or tools to move their work forward, they need a meeting to itemize what’s missing and develop and action plan (with a follow-up meeting, of course, to confirm that the actions have been taken). When handoffs are late, or are missing information, or are incorrect, teams need to meet to coordinate. When things take too long, and customers are flooding the system with inquiries, a meeting is needed to figure out what to do. These are all preventable meetings! Whenever the reason for a meeting is because something is missing, late, incomplete or incorrect, it is a preventable meeting.
Why do meetings take so much effort to feed?
- Too many meetings. The more meetings, the more effort it takes to plan them, prepare content/presentations for them, deliver and discuss the content, and then follow up on them. Fewer meetings = less effort.
- Unclear Objectives/Outcomes. It may not be surprising that if the objective of a meeting item is unclear, that the research, preparation and follow-up from the meeting might take more effort than a meeting with a concise objective and desired purpose/outcome.
- Busy = little or no reflection. Busy people who spend their entire days in meetings rarely, if ever, stop and reflect on whether there is a better, lighter, faster way of doing the job of the meeting. An organization we worked with found that a typical medium-complexity item at one of its executive committees required approximately 35 hours of effort to prepare. At the same time, they identified that the same item experienced 9-10 hours or preventable effort, each time! Multiply that by the number of meeting items in a year and you can imagine the impact. They ended up saving much of that time by eliminating non-value activities in the meeting preparation process – and creating clearer objectives and scope that required less effort to feed.
Why are meetings ineffective?
- Lack of clarity of purpose. If the objective of the meeting is unclear, one can expect the meeting to take longer than expected and to leave important issues unaddressed.
- Lack of reflection. As in the previous questions, when people are too busy going to meetings, they rarely take the time to assess how they run/participate in meetings, and improve them. In fact, the idea of making meetings better, to people who are numbed by too many of them, might be like a fish maybe not noticing the water it lives in. Too close, that we don’t question what it is or how we do it.
- Lack of systems. Even if leaders and meeting participants identify ways to make their meetings more effective, they often over-rely on the good will of participants to implement and sustain these improvements. To make a new habit stick requires repetition and a system to reinforce the new behaviour. Without this deliberate practice, and the guardrails of prompts, triggers and simple routines to reinforce the new behaviour, it is unlikely that better methods will stick.