Do you ever feel like you meet, just to meet? You might be right – meetings can be a dangerous time suck if you are having them just to have them. And yet, they are a fixture of corporate America. Nancy Koehn, who teaches at the Harvard Business School, estimates that there will be 11 million meetings taking place today in the United States. But just because you feel accomplished by the mere fact that you are meeting, doesn’t mean that any meaningful work is actually taking place.
Here’s how to break the mediocre meeting cycle:
Determine the Purpose of the Meeting
Every meeting should have a clearly stated goal, and often that can help you decide whether you need to meet or not. Many times you might be better able to tackle an issue by having a phone conversation, starting an email chain or another tactic.
Routine meetings, such as weekly staff meetings and the like, are the ones where you need to think carefully through whether they should be held at all. Having an entire department in a room means that no actual work is being done. In some cases having the group together is important to loop everyone in for a specific project that touches many staff members, but in other cases it can be a wasted hour where everyone just shares their priorities for the week.
So if you routinely have a Wednesday staff meeting to check in, determine what the real purpose is. If it’s just to update everyone on your workload, maybe there’s a better way to accomplish it. Perhaps you could instead have everyone summarize their accomplishments from the previous week and their goals for the upcoming week in an email. That could do double duty of keeping everyone informed, but also act as a personal to-do list for each team member.
However, if the meeting is to discuss a project that lots of people will be working on, it can be a convenient way to get a lot accomplished as quickly as possible and make sure everyone is up to speed. It also can assist in ensuring that everyone understands their role in a particular group project and feels accountability to see that it goes smoothly.
Determine Who Should Be at the Meeting
After you’ve determined the purpose, think through who should be at the meeting. Having too few people might mean that important decision-making can stall out, and having too many people can often lead to competing priorities. One guideline that many people use is called “the 8-18-800 rule.” Here’s how it can be summarized:
- Eight is the maximum number of people to invite if you are trying to make a decision. If you have too many, you’ll find that “too many cooks spoil the broth.”
- 18 is the top end for a brainstorming meeting, where you are seeking lots of opinions, say for a new marketing campaign or other task where a diverse group of opinions will yield better options.
- 800 means the whole gang – when you are having a recognition event or providing company-wide updates that affect everyone. Of course, the 800 refers to “everyone.”
So before you send out meeting invitations, take a few minutes to review the list and make sure the right people are on there – not just the right number. If a certain decision-maker is key to moving forward, the meeting can’t go on without him or her, or participants will essentially be spinning their wheels.
And make sure you have a mechanism for reporting out the meeting to those who should be looped in, but don’t need to be there.
Determine When the Meeting Should Be
Timing can be trickier than you might think. First thing in the morning seems like a logical time, but often that’s when many workers are their most productive, whether getting a jump on the day’s list or putting out fires that might have evolved overnight. It also can be challenging for parents who might work a more flexible work schedule, or workers who routinely interact with other time zones, especially when western workers are interacting with eastern workers. A lunch meeting can be successful, though some people use that time to recharge or have networking lunches with clients or coworkers. Late in the day can be hard if someone is really pressed to finish something before the end of the day. What does that leave? Well every office is different, and the smartest tactic is to get a sense from the group for what works for them. However, often mid-morning and mid-afternoon meetings can be successful as they provide a break in the work flow. If you find you are setting a meeting time that people are routinely missing, seek input for a better time.
Determine the Format of the Meeting
Finally, think through where the meeting will be held. If you are trying to hold an offsite meeting it might be best early in the morning, so people don’t get involved in their day and have to leave. Walking meetings is a new trend that allows everyone to get physical exercise and the brain-clearing boost of endorphins that comes from moving around. Obviously, that wouldn’t be practical with a large group, but something to think about for smaller meetings. If you are meeting in a conference room, try to limit distractions from a busy hallway. And, the other part of format is setting a useful agenda.
Meetings can be equally useful — or equally useless — depending on how organized the group and the leader is. Once you determine that a meeting is the right format for the decision you need to make, ensure you have invited the right people, and the right number, to make sure that you can accomplish your goals and arrive at decisions in a concentrated time. A great meeting can leave everyone recharged, focused and ready to accomplish the next project.
by Cathie Ericson