I just read an article saying that Jeff Bezos, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk and others all view meetings as time-wasters. Cuban says that he won’t attend meetings (or talk on the phone) unless it directly generates income. The question is: whether holding plenty of meetings to ensure proper communication — or eliminating them entirely — would be the most cost-effective option.
Of course, the answer is somewhere in between. You can’t eliminate all meetings, but you can take measures to make sure that they’re all effective.
Answers to Some Questions Can Help Increase Meeting Productivity
Let me tell you about the two-hour series of checkpoint meetings held by a former employer immediately preceding critical project deadlines. Every project included several of these meetings. About 20 people left their work. Even worse, each meeting was held twice.
The first meeting was a rehearsal. The plan was to answer all anticipated questions from executives, who were not invited. The real meeting included the executives, who invariably came up with unanticipated questions. As the technical writer, I played a five-minute role in every meeting; yet I lost four hours’ worth of time by attending both meetings in their entirety. No one was particularly interested in the documentation (as long as it was available on time); my time would have been better-spent by working on my deadlines.
Let’s use those meetings to explore some of the questions that might have been asked to make everyone more productive.
Have you established a goal before calling the meeting?
The checkpoint meetings had a goal: to make sure that everyone was on target to meet a deadline and answer any outstanding questions. The rehearsals had the goal of predicting executive questions to make sure that everything ran smoothly. These might have been worthwhile goals, but in this case, they did not justify two meetings.
Even with a goal and a strict agenda, these meetings were counterproductive for most attendees. In other words, goals aren’t everything.
How many people really need to be there?
My attendance at checkpoint meetings was barely necessary. I didn’t need to hear about the project’s underlying financials, marketing strategies, or sales plans. My role was to say, “The documentation includes a user guide and online help. It is accurate, and it will be ready on time,” followed by answering any questions (which were rare, indeed). Even worse, my manager was required to attend the meeting, as well, even though she never said anything. Since she might have been interested in the bigger picture, she could have made my presentation without me.
Make sure that every invitee really needs to attend. If they want to attend just to be fully informed, they can do so. But, don’t make attendance mandatory for nonessential personnel.
Do all people have to attend the entire meeting?
I had to attend every checkpoint meeting in its entirety, even though only five minutes actually affected my role in the project. The project would not have suffered if I showed up 15 minutes before my little presentation. In fact, since everyone knew what I was going to say, I probably could have skipped the rehearsal entirely. It’s not like the top brass typically asked any documentation questions.
Especially for long meetings, make sure that nonessential personnel are in place when they’re needed. The rest of the time, let them do their jobs.
What alternatives would be more productive?
Those #^&% checkpoint meetings always took place on the same day that I had a critical deadline, so, even though the meetings were held in my building, I started calling in. This way, no one could see that I was actually doing real work while they were talking. This one practice really increased my contribution to project productivity.
The point is that you should think outside of the box, if necessary, to find flexible options that can keep people be most productive during a meeting — or eliminate the need for a meeting altogether. When someone has a question, maybe a quick phone call or email would get it answered without the need for 20 disinterested witnesses. If team members already prepare weekly status reports, perhaps the reports can be stored online where other team members can see them if necessary.
If your workplace has too many filled conference rooms accompanied by empty desks, solicit creative alternatives from everyone. Just don’t schedule a meeting to do it!
Can you justify regularly-scheduled meetings?
At the same company, I attended weekly team project status meetings. I was the sole writer in a team of programmers; yet, those meetings invariably informed me of upcoming software and hardware changes that would affect my documentation. The meetings generally took less than an hour, and they helped me immensely.
Unfortunately, not all regularly-scheduled meetings are necessary. One company required everyone to attend monthly company status meetings. They were held after hours and off-site, and even out-of-town personnel had to fly in for them. For me and everyone around me, these meetings were torturous affairs, with countless hard-to-see slides of financial spreadsheets. We weren’t interested in the subject matter, but the food was pretty good.
There’s a lesson here: regularly-scheduled all-employee meetings are seldom essential, and they can even be costly. If you absolutely must inform everyone, quarterly meetings are enough. Annual meetings would be better. You might even be able to hire a motivational speaker with all the money you save.
Technology Can Make Meetings More Effective
If the main purpose of most of your meetings is to update team members, affordable technological tools are available that generally work better than get-togethers. Appropriate people can bring projects up on their computers to see up-to-the-minute information, share files, and yes, even attend meetings online.
An online search for group chat software reveals some of the many options available. Slack is one of the better-known brands, and Microsoft Teams is another that may have the benefit of compatibility with Microsoft products you use. Both offer free versions, but make sure that you check out other options, as well.
Some Meetings are Worth Having
I have some potentially disappointing news: you’re not Mark Cuban. You don’t have his power (yet), and you probably do have to call or attend meetings. However, if you avoid unnecessary meetings and take stalwart control over the ones that you must have, they can become business assets rather than hindrances.