They say there’s an exception to every rule. Meetings are the exception to the, “practice makes perfect” rule. You’d think with all the practice, companies would have them streamlined to perfection by now. However, according to a survey by Harvard Business Review, 71% of senior managers said meetings are unproductive and inefficient.

From my experience, a major driver leading to inefficient meetings is when you try to do too much with them. They’re not a magic pill to solve your company’s problems.

Stop going to meetings without an agenda

I get it. Sometimes it’s easier to just hop into a quick, off-the-cuff meeting to figure stuff out. I’m not saying every meeting needs to have a bulleted outline on official company letterhead. Still, you’ll find every meeting can benefit from taking five minutes to jot down what you want to accomplish in the meeting.

What’s the purpose for the meeting? What are three key things you want to get figured out? What outcome do you want from the meeting? Who needs to be there? Who doesn’t need to be there?

Answering those questions with your agenda will help you get a better understanding of what you want to get out of the meeting. Just as importantly, putting the answers in agenda form will clarify the purpose of the meeting to everyone involved. As a result, everyone knows what a successful meeting means, and you’ll be more likely to have one.

Image from The Fellowship of the Ring © New Line Cinema

Stop letting your meetings get derailed from the agenda

There isn’t one meeting to rule them all. Sorry. Efficient meetings stay focused.

With the outcome clarified in the agenda, your job as meeting host is to keep things on topic. Keeping a parking lot in your meetings is a great way to help things stay on topic. The parking lot is simply a list of items that are outside the topic of your current meeting. When you see things start getting off topic, add that to the parking lot.

If you’re having a code review meeting and someone brings up a suggestion to change the brand of coffee you provide the developers, that’s a parking lot item. Does it warrant further discussion? Maybe. But that’s not the reason for your current meeting. Don’t let one off-topic discussion be the reason your meeting gets dragged into inefficiency.

Stop unclear expectations

Have you ever left a meeting and immediately wondered, “What do I need to do now?” What’s the point of a meeting if you leave it with more questions than answers?

Before starting any meeting, you should be able to finish this phrase:

This meeting will be a success if __________.

During the meeting, there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding about who is doing what. Use a whiteboard if you can to write down decisions as they’re made. Don’t forget to turn them into SMART goals and assign a point of contact to take the lead on action items.

By the end of the meeting, everyone should be on the same page. There shouldn’t be any question about who’s doing what, why it’s being done, and when it will be done.

Stop unrealistic expectations

Some studies suggest people spend up to 50% of their time at work in meetings. If that number sounds low, then this tip is for you.

Your company isn’t in the business of having meetings. At some point, you need to get stuff done. You can’t do that when you’re in meetings all day long, and neither can your employees. The “A” (Achievable) in SMART goals comes into play here.

When you’re assigning a project to someone, make sure they have the bandwidth to do it. If they don’t, it’s up to you as a leader to clear the roadblocks keeping them from getting it done.

Stop inviting people who don’t need to be there

We’ve all had meetings with too many people in them. Those meetings where it’s a status symbol to attend. Or the development team’s meeting that marketing attends just so they know what’s going on.

Here’s a novel idea: If you’re not going to be an active, efficient participant in the meeting, you don’t need to be there.

Keep in mind not all active participation is efficient participation. Some people like to hear themselves talk a little too much. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos solves this with his two-pizza rule. In other words, never have a meeting where two pizzas wouldn’t feed everyone.

Stop having meetings as a replacement for email, Slack, etc.

Some participants may not need to attend meetings, but some meetings don’t need to take place at all. There’s nothing quite like face-to-face conversations to get stuff figured out, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be done face-to-face.

Holding a lot of meetings doesn’t magically make your company great at communication.

The key to identifying if your next meeting is something you can delegate to an email is if it’s something that you need to get real-time interaction on. When you email, the person on the other end can check it on their own time. When you ask them to come to a meeting or even answer a phone call, you’re asking them to stop what they’re doing so you can get some of their time to help you.

If you don’t need real-time, immediate interaction with someone else then you probably don’t need to hold a meeting. Try email first and only move to a meeting if you find that’s not successful.

Stop trying to have all the answers

When you convene a group of people in the same room for the purpose of figuring something out, let them figure it out. Hosting a meeting doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. If you did, what’s the purpose of the meeting?

Some leaders hold meetings and completely disregard their people’s input. They’ll run the meeting as if they’re making a decree instead of asking for input. You don’t need to hold a meeting to let your employees know of a decision you’ve already made when a company memo will do that.

You may know the starting point; what your current reality is. You can help clarify the goal of where you want to go. You’ve hired smart people. Let them figure out the options to connect the current reality to the goal.

Stop design by committee

If you’re in the creative world, you’re familiar with design by committee. Basically, it refers to what happens when no one can make a decision. Instead, decisions are made by a group of people. What might’ve started out as a well-formed idea gets added to from everyone in the company. The scope balloons. When this happens, it almost always ends in an expensive disaster. You can’t make everyone happy.

There are too many cooks in the kitchen.

I know this sounds contradictory to my previous tip, but it’s probably why so many meetings fail. Efficient meetings walk the line of getting input and having someone there to realize there comes a point when decisions need to be made.

Stop letting meetings run too long

Set a time limit for your meetings. Make it a rule that a meeting scheduled for 30 minutes will end in 30 minutes. I like to use a timer, like the TimeCube, as the meeting starts. When the timer goes off, everyone knows it is time to wrap up. Respect your people’s time.

Need more time? This is where your role as a leader comes into play. Instead of starting the timer over again and enabling inefficient meetings, make a decision. For a 30-minute meeting, that means at 20 to 25 minutes, you’ll need to start making decisions and recapping the next action steps. Set SMART goals and, because they’re time-based, you’ll have a timeline to follow-up to see if they’re achieved.

It’s alright to reconvene a meeting once the SMART goals are finished. From there, you’ll have more information to make a better decision to create new SMART goals to keep pushing your company forward. Remember, you don’t have to get everything perfect the first time around, but you do have to get started.

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