Wasteful meetings. We've all been there. We are all still there. Meetings are at once the object of our ire and the very rhythm of our business. How can something be so derided and yet so important? There are books, articles and blogs about better meetings but all any of them serve up is the same exercise in pointing out the obvious. Here's a brief tour of published folly:
"Do the pre-reading." Yeah, like that's going to happen.
"Be on time." Sure, it's not like we're busy or anything. Deadlines, schmedlines!
"Know everyone's name." Five minutes of intro time saved! Go buy some blue tights and paint an 'S' on your chest.
"Be a proactive listener." Darn, that whole not listening thing seemed like such a great career move. Is 'reactive listening' even possible? What did you say? Sorry I must've missed that.
"Have a good reason to meet." Ok, this one just pisses me off. If you are meeting for no good reason, no advice about the semantics of a meeting can help you. Whoever wrote this, please never work in the software industry.
Oh there are plenty more, like taking good notes, creating action items, using good humor (hey I called this meeting to fire you, but have I got a great joke about being unemployed! You see this jobless guy walks into a bar ...) and stating the purpose of the meeting in advance. Boy, wouldn't have thought of those in a million years.
This advice is as unproductive as the unproductive meetings it is trying to alleviate. I've been to meetings with all these ingredients and guess what? Those meetings still sucked. Why? Because good meetings are not about the way the meeting is held but about the culture of the organization that is holding those meetings. Thus, my thesis: If you want productive meetings, create an anti meeting culture. Here's my shot at defining this culture:
First, get the right attendees and be aggressive about it. Invite people who can contribute and when people sustainably fail to contribute, un-invite them. The same thing goes for people who drag out the meeting with tangential issues and pointless debate. Meeting invitations are not some corporate-given right. Meetings are not a door prize everyone collects. If you want in, be in. Take the meeting seriously or don't be part of it. Create this culture and you will find that people come to meetings ready to get work done and that the attendees will self-select to be the right people to be there in the first place.
Second, make coming and going kosher. Halfway through a meeting and you realize you can't contribute or don't need to be there? Leave. Such an egress shouldn't even raise an eyebrow with the right grown-up meeting culture. A great way to start such a culture is to hold meetings in open areas where coming and going is more natural and fuss-free. Or remove the chairs from the conference room and stand up. You've just made the door easier to get to.
Third, vote with your feet by walking away from the more useless meetings. Just don't go to those meetings where the organizer holds court. Anyone who likes the sound of their own voice that much doesn't deserve your attendance. When he asks why, tell him! If such bluntness isn't your style then turn it around and put a positive spin on meetings. Create a rank ordered list of good meetings and "like" them, "tweet" about them or, in Microsoft's case, use Yammer as a hammer. Meetings are important so make good ones a cause for kudos and a metric you track.
Fourth, heed the warning signs. The first such sign is the meeting agenda. Big agendas mean lots of time switching topics. Too many decision points means too much debate. A long list of topics ensures that some people won't have a stake in some topics and that's a poor use of those people's time. Single purpose meetings are the best: this is what we are here to do, now lets use the meeting time to do it. The second sign is multiple presenters. The more, the less merry. Each one has to do their little warm up and wind down and each must pay the technology tax of switching laptops and dorking around with display settings. Ah that damn tech tax! Someone bring me a bucket.
Fifth, follow up a scheduled meeting with scheduled work time. If a meeting has a purpose and requires action to be taken (like any good meeting should), schedule time immediately following the meeting to take that action. When the meeting ends, the action items are fresh in everyone's minds and everyone is on the same page. There is no better time to act. Make sure you actually schedule the work time too so everyone's calendar is blocked preventing other people from putting meetings there. Post meeting hallway conversations are often the best part of meetings, make time for them!
Finally, all this points to building an anti meeting culture within your organization (or at least work group). Build disdain for meetings into your DNA so that every meeting is useless until proven otherwise. Anything less means superfluous meetings are the accepted norm. But a meeting series that starts out with a "useless" label only to become a part of the rhythm of business is a meeting to respect. Meeting organizers need to be put on notice: make this meeting meaningful, its your damn job.
Once this culture is built, prepare for extra-meeting communication to spontaneously form a life of its own. Status is reported over email (where it belongs), accomplishments spread through lunchroom chatter, hallway conversations sort out blocking issues, office drive-bys turn into brainstorms. In such a culture meetings are part of the flow of business instead being the pause button for the business. When meetings are sparse, that means communication is flowing freely and no one feels like they need to be at a meeting to be informed of some key decision (which is lame) or just to be seen (which is lame squared).
An anti meeting culture is about getting stuff done. It's the opposite of talking about getting stuff done. Fewer meetings isn't necessarily the goal; better and more productive ones is the goal. Fewer generally follows better and an anti meeting culture is the way to get there. What it takes is for some meeting organizer to step up and do it right and provide the high water mark for all other meeting organizers to reach. Be that person for your org and sit back and wait for someone complain about having too much time to get their work done because there aren't enough meetings.
Meet smart and prosper.