Everyone who has worked in an office has had to sit through at least one. Those long rambling meetings that last for hours and go nowhere. Sessions where people interrupt or dominate and use as an opportunity for grandstanding and ego gratification, where people are forever checking their smartphones or taking calls and where everyone else is thinking about what else they could be doing.
Zelko Lendich still remembers them from when he took over as managing director of egg producer Farm Pride seven years ago.
“People seemed to want to get together and have these long all day or four hour meetings and they just agree to meet again in month and next month and decisions don’t get made,” Lendich says.
“That sort of meeting is just crap”.
And it doesn’t happen anymore.
“People take their cues from myself or key people,” he says.
“I have become more selective and more directed in terms of the meetings we have. We have so few resources to spare so we don’t have a lot of meetings. We get together to discuss the issues and do it and I rely a lot on individual managers taking the initiative and making the decision.”
“In a pretty tough environment, you get together, you discuss the issue and put the bets in front of you on the table. You do some research, you figure out what’s going to happen at the meeting and make a decision and go ahead and do it.”
Lendich believes people further down the decision-making process in organisations, like those in research and development, tend to have meetings that go nowhere. They simply don’t value time the same way.
He says people scared of making mistakes tend to hold meetings. These meetings cover their steps. If nothing happens, they can always do a report later saying they went through all the right processes. An organisation where there is a fear of making wrong decisions is an organisation rife with meetings. It’s a culture Lendich rejects.
“With us, we discuss the issue and decide,” Lendich says. “It might not be perfect decisions all the time but I think an imperfect decision is better than protracting it over a long period of time because lots of things happen and change. You never get it dead right but so what?”
Ed Robins, the sole director of ProFocus, a company that trains organisations to work more effectively says endless meetings reflect the kind of culture where the organisation and its managers aren’t clear about what they want those meetings to achieve.
“It’s a lack of process, it’s a lack of agreement and understanding of what it should be,” Robins says. “It’s also a lack that you find in organisations about everything which is a lack of self evaluation.”
“We don’t evaluate meetings so we whinge around the water cooler about how bad it was but we don’t evaluate it properly or do anything about it.”
Robins has a nine point plan for more effective meetings. It’s a document circulated to everyone:
- Is there a business case for this meeting? Does it make sense? Is it a waste of time?
- Circulate the meeting agenda. That includes preparation reading with a good lead time.
- Allocate roles and responsibilities. Who is going to keep time? Take minutes? Keep things on track?
- Manage the time.
- Manage focus. Keep people on track. Stick to the agenda.
- All members have a responsibility to contribute and facilitate consensus. Everyone has role, no matter who they are. Everyone has to help others participate in the meeting.
- Always evaluate content and process. At the end of the meeting, ask whether you achieved what you set out to do. Mark it out of 10.
- Circulate minutes, assignments and whatever else came out of the meeting.
- Be a good role model. For managers, that also means turning up on time.
“People need to agree the ground rules up front, if they don’t have them, they need to create them,” Robins says. “You agree to the ground rules and you stick to them.”
He says meetings have to start and finish on time. Managers who delay the meeting until the latecomers arrive are just punishing the punctual.
When is the best time to hold a meeting? There are two schools of thought on this. Some have argued that mornings are never good because that is when people are at their most productive. According to this argument, the best time for a meeting is before lunch or before the end of the day so that people will be keen to wind it up.
Robins disagrees. “If it’s not worth having people at their peak, why are they there?” he says. “I would rather nail it while people are fresh, but then it has to be worth them being there.
“The earlier in the day, the better, it is. Things will crop up in the day inevitably so it would be delayed.”
Robins also has other novel ideas worth considering. He says each meeting should have “parking lots”. If something comes up that’s not on the agenda, it’s put into parking lot for a future meeting and noted down.
“It’s just a piece of butcher’s paper on the flip chart or something like that,” he says.
“That can be part of your minutes, like we’ll deal with that Tuesday week.”
He says companies need to start training managers to run meetings. It’s something most neglect, to their cost because it means lower productivity. “I have a project management bent and I look at the waste of time and the cost of people sitting around untrained,” he says. “You can have a meeting that has a good purpose and you can nail it in thee quarters of an hour or whatever the time is.That’s as opposed to some that I have been sitting in that go for three hours and you achieve nothing. The guys there are high powered execs, and the cost of that meeting is huge.”
“It’s really a question of productivity. Why not be trained to do this with skills like any other part of the job? People just assume everyone can manage it somehow. It really should be identified if you’re looking at people’s performance.”
Another interesting idea of his for extra long meetings is for managers to be on call. When it’s time to make a presentation or field questions, they get a call to come in. The rest of the time, they could be attending to their work.
Organisational psychologist Helen Crossing, a director of consulting firm Inspirational Workplaces, says managers should look at the structure of their organisation to develop a communication strategy, a blue print for who should be talking to who and when.
“One of the things I try talking to managers about is trying to make sure the purpose of each meeting is clear. You can create a communication plan or a strategy so you can work out what sort of sequence of meetings you need, meetings with direct reports or team meetings with a whole layer of people reporting to you.”
She says there needs to be a clear allocation of roles. Meetings need to be chaired and someone needs to take minutes. If someone is being long-winded or going off the track, a good chairman will pull them into line. There needs to be the discipline of sending out an agenda and sticking to the time limit.
As for timing, people need to be sensitive that our brains can only take so much. “Most people can only attend for 20-30 minutes at a time,” Crossing says. “If people roll on for a couple of hours, you start to wonder about the value of that meeting unless you have got an agenda, and different people speaking and some sort action there and recording of decisions as you go. Otherwise you lose people’s attention.”
This means that people with opposite views need to be encouraged to speak. “If you want to have a good meeting, you encourage contrary views and you make sure everybody gets to speak and voice their opinion in their own words,” she says. “It’s useful to reward people who have contrary views because that view is likely to be owned by others in the group, they just won’t necessarily express it. If you constantly reinforce views that only agree with your own, why would you bother to have a team meeting?”
Another good rule, she says, is to praise in public, and criticise in private. “The fastest way to shut everybody up is some sort of shaming of figures or performance. That’s the fastest way to shut down people and prevent any contribution. It’s very unconstructive.”
“So it’s about creating a positive team climate so you get people sharing successes, sharing ideas, being able to admit to mistakes but not having the manger use it as a chance to tear strips off people.”
Good meetings are scarce but you know when you are attending one. The agenda is clearly defined for everyone, everyone is focused and knows what’s going on and everybody there has a sense of purpose contributing. It starts on time and ends promptly with the next steps marked out and confirmed for everyone. There may even be a sense of camaraderie. The alternative is a waste of time.
- Circulate the agenda and reading material.
- Allocate roles. Someone has to chair the meeting, someone has to take minutes.
- Start and end on time.
- If a meeting is long, schedule breaks when people can check their email and phones.
- If people are shy or hesitate, find a way to draw them out.
- Making people look stupid is not kind or productive.
- Keep things on track and tightly focused.
- Don’t have clear roles about how to manage the meeting.
- If all the information can be captured in a simple group email, hold the meeting anyway.
- Interrupt people when they’re talking.
- Be judgemental. Name and shame.
- Allow people to dominate the meeting.
Start late and go over time.