by Manny Larcher
Too many meetings can be a waste of time for a number of reasons:
Here are 5 reasons to avoid business meetings:
A lot has been written about this problem, Harvard Business Review has put together a helpful list to make meetings more productive ahead of time:
1. Collect data from each person.
To get a clearer view of how meetings are affecting your group, use surveys or interviews to gather data and impressions from every individual. That will help you gauge the full extent of the problem: You’ll learn how much resentment is bubbling under the surface and how much work isn’t getting done during the day.
2. Interpret the data together.
Next, it’s critical to come together as a team or a unit to digest everyone’s feedback and analyze what is working and what is not. This must be an open, nonjudgmental discussion of the survey or interview findings. Neutral facilitators can help keep the conversation constructive. However, delegating the data interpretation to an outside consultant—or even just a subset of the team—can undermine success. You’ll need contributions and analysis from all team members to generate the widespread understanding and buy-in required for the remaining steps.
At the financial and regulatory consultancy we studied, for example, exploratory interviews revealed that meetings were chopping up calendars so badly that very few two- or three-hour blocks were left for deep-thinking work. Without enough quiet time to concentrate, the consultants felt that their creativity and productivity were being sapped. These disclosures served as a wake-up call for the managers who had been scheduling meetings without a full awareness of the impact they were having.
3. Agree on a collective, personally relevant goal.
We have found that personally benefiting from the group’s initiative is a great motivator. For example, you might designate a certain amount of time each week for people to focus on independent work—whether in the office or at home. Giving them such flexibility and freedom can provide necessary relief in their schedules, along with an incentive to make the arrangement work. Declaring “meeting free” periods also forces the whole group to reevaluate meetings that were normally scheduled during those times and to ask who really needs to attend. As a result, we find, teams hold fewer meetings overall, and fewer people go to each one. The additional “white space” in everyone’s calendar increases individual productivity and reduces the spillover into personal time.
Here’s how this approach worked at a technology consultancy we examined: Members were based in the United States and India, so a handoff meeting was held each day—early in the morning for some and late at night for others to accommodate the 12.5-hour time difference. The long days were causing significant stress and fatigue on both sides: Early-morning calls were required, family dinners were missed, workdays were more than 12 hours long. Once the team had collected survey data from its members and realized the magnitude of the problem, it altered its approach: Each person was given one workday a week when he or she didn’t have to participate in the handoff call.
In order to ensure the appropriate information exchange, team members had to find ways to cover for one another and keep everyone updated. Learning how to do that gave individuals the break they needed, but it also resulted in more shared knowledge and versatility in the group. Furthermore, people gained a deeper understanding of their colleagues’ work, which led to better-integrated offerings for customers.
4. Set milestones and monitor progress.
As with any change effort, it is important that concrete and measurable progress be assessed and discussed along the way. Small, tangible wins provide something for people to celebrate, and small losses provide opportunities for learning and correction. Consider this example: At a global e-commerce company, a team of 30 employees spanning the United States and China told us that their weekly all-hands meetings were a pain point. Attendees were often on their phones or laptops. Because people were continually distracted, those who spoke had to repeat themselves frequently, making the time spent not only longer but also much less effective. To help address these problems, the team decided on a simple, tractable goal: Allow no outside technology at the meetings.
At first several vocal engineers and even the team leader were resistant, feeling that they should have the right to use their devices, especially when meetings became boring or turned to topics outside their purview. For a while after the initiative was launched, friendly reminders (“No tech, man!”) were necessary. But over time the new norm took hold, and even the manager self-corrected when he instinctively started to check his phone. The team began to see the benefits of this experiment. Meetings became more productive, and people were more engaged. As one engineer said, “This no-tech rule is fantastic! Now that people are more focused on the meeting, it’s more efficient.” Another team member started bringing a notebook to jot down thoughts rather than playing games on her phone. This small victory opened the door to setting other new norms, such as preparing materials more thoroughly ahead of time, keeping meetings as brief as possible, and ultimately reworking meeting cadences to better fit the team members’ schedules.
5. Regularly debrief as a group.
Finally, we have found that it is critical to regularly and openly take stock of how people feel about the meetings they attend and about their work process more generally. Frustration, resentment, and even hopelessness are signals that people are falling back into bad patterns. Moreover, changing protocols and behaviors takes time, and sustaining momentum requires consistent attention and contact.
At a pharmaceutical company we worked with, the global medical-affairs division established two regular “pulse checks” to monitor the progress of an experiment it was conducting with meeting-free days: one check within the subteam and one across the division. At the beginning of each pulse check, participants answered four questions: How are you feeling? How valuable are the ways in which you are spending your time? How well are you working as a team? Is this sustainable?
The answers to these questions triggered substantive discussions, rich in emotional, strategic, and tactical content. Early conversations focused specifically on the meeting problem, but over time they increasingly addressed how team members approached their work—and one another. One manager said, “I’m impressed with how these meetings have allowed people to open up, particularly with [the manager] listening….Pulse checks are really insightful—they give me a good dose of reality…and they surfaced issues that resulted in more cross-coverage, people development, and teamwork. It sounds crazy that this little experiment could create these sorts of results, but it has profound implications far beyond the initial goal.”
Read more from Harvard Business Review here.
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