5 Minute Fix: Meetings

Of all the time-sinks we circumnavigate during our average working day, the ‘meeting’ is almost certainly the one the majority of people dislike the most.   Meetings are, by any definition, a necessary evil, or more simply ‘evil’, with most people openly admitting that they would much rather be doing something else instead: scripting, writing, answering emails, coding, producing graphics, recording audio, in the motion capture studio, levelling the MS Project gantt, updating an Excel task-tracking document, casting talent, pulling teeth, Tuvan throat singing, broadly, anything but sitting in a room with 15 other people trying to come to some form of weeping consensus.   I’ve lost count of the number of times in the development environment I’ve heard someone say:

“….can we just get on so I can get out of here and do some real work…”

during a particularly tortuous meeting.  Mostly coders.  Artists tend to sit there and doodle dark things.  I could write a book on the doodles that mean ‘end the meeting artist x is going Norman Bates’.  These words, and doodles, are especially painful when that person is a key decision maker and needs to be engaged to move things forwards and agree actions.  So why is this?

A big factor in this is almost invariably history and precedent – the nature of the meetings they’ve suffered in the past, often too long and only marginally productive.  I speak from experience having, in my early career, run an awful lot of meetings of this type.  But there are also a range of cyclical bad-habits that crop up time-and-time again and that collectively guarantee that most meetings are destined for no more than marginal success before anyone’s put a foot inside the room, and they mostly fall into three categories:

  1. Meeting Setup – an inappropriately large group given the scope of the meeting; the assembled group not understanding why they’ve met, what type of ‘meeting’ this is, and there are many; what they’re individually going to be expected to contribute and discuss; and no one, organiser included, sharing an understanding of what decision points need to be reached for the meeting to be concluded.
  2. Meeting Management – the lack of poor/non-existent planning; the lack of a clearly restated focus and outcome(s) at the outset; the desire to achieve happy consensus rather than a good decision; no time-box meaning the meeting can easily overrun; an overly long time slot meaning people are inclined to use up the entire meeting slot, even if a decision was reached in minute 3; closing a meeting when everyone’s fun quotidian is full, or when they’re at their happiest/least confrontational, rather than at the correct decision; and Any Other Business.
  3. Unproductive Team Dynamic/Behaviour – the list is endless, but includes: wanting to ‘enjoy’ the meeting more than make a decision – see fun quotidian in the above section; digressing in a meeting that should be focussed; looking for consensus rather than the correct decision; enjoying debate for the sake of debate; showing no respect for other people’s perspectives which kills the value of their own ideas, and so on, and so forth.  We’re all guilty of them from time-to-time – me more than most.

The thing is, all of these things are largely pretty easy to avoid, or at least mitigate.  Here’s the 5 minute fix:

  1. Length – Keep meetings as short as humanly possible, and ideally never schedule a meeting that’s going to last more than 45minutes.  Over the years we seem to have forgotten this, but 45minutes is a very long time, and generally more than enough time to discuss and agree most things.  Keeping meetings short is aided enormously by good meeting practice, as outlined below.
  2. Attendees – Only invite the people needed to make a decision, not the people who feel entitled to attend but don’t actually have a meaningful contribution to make.  The fewer the number of people in that room, the better.  Culturally this can be incredibly hard to change, but it’s so worth the effort.  In my experience, as long as you’re careful to document the meeting and loop all the right people in after it’s finished, the upside becomes self-evident in no time at all.  As a rule, if it’s a decision making meeting more than 6 people starts to become unwieldy – the signal to noise ratio can be crazy – other meetings are harder to cap low, the obvious ones being presentations and roundtables.
  3. Type – Define in the meeting invitation subject line the type of meeting: is it a roundtable, a presentation, a meeting, a review.  Culturally define expectations around each meeting type, so that team members know before they come in the room what level of contribution they’re going to be expected to make.  Restate this at the start of the meeting and ensure everyone in the room understands how they can contribute and move the meeting forwards.
  4. Setup – Always include an Overview and List of Outcomes i.e. Why you’re meeting and the criteria for the meeting to be over.  This alone cuts meeting times down by an extraordinary amount, and is a behaviour well worth pursuing.
  5. Restate Actions, Owners and Timescales – When the meeting is concluding, and as soon as your outcomes are met, restate the agreed next-actions; which one person owns each action, will move it forwards, and report status; and a timescale for this to be complete.
  6. No AOB – AOB is the killer blow that should be avoided if possible.  It’s the easiest way to add 25-50% more time to a meeting, and turn what was a perfectly effective gathering into something people remember with horror.  If possible, avoid AOB.

So there it is then, the 5 minute fix.  I’ll candidly admit, it’s hard to remain that disciplined with meetings, but the payback can be enormous even if you only adopt a handful of behaviours, and is well worth the small amount of effort it takes to embed them.

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