I’ve always considered meetings to be a necessary evil. There are times when the best thing to do is bring together the appropriate people to make a decision or just update a group of people on status. Far too often, a meeting is used as a way to defer or avoid making a decision and a lot of time gets wasted.
On top of that, even when the meeting is necessary, it’s poorly run and made inefficient by the facilitator, the attendees or both.
So here are my five rules of meetings. I have a lot more than five, but if everyone just followed these guidelines, the world would be a better place for it.
5 rules of meetings
1) Be on time. Let me restate that. Be on time, dammit! I have always believed that promptness is a sign of respect. Not only that, it’s also a huge waste of your organization’s money. Think of it this way. When I was single and wanted to fly to another city for a weekend, it was the cost of one ticket. When I got married, that cost doubled. Now that I have three kids, I have to buy five tickets for just one trip. That’s how it is with meetings. You don’t just waste your time, it’s multiplied by the number of people in the meeting. If you show up 10 minutes late to a meeting with six people who are waiting for you, you’ve just wasted a collective hour. What if you have an average of 10 meetings a week (only two a day) and are 10 minutes late to them? Assuming an average of six meeting attendees and 50 workweeks (you do have a vacation to be late for after all), you will have wasted 500 hours for the year – not to mention pissing off 3,000 people. If you assume the average fully loaded cost of an employee (salary + benefits + overhead costs) is $100/hour, you will have wasted $50,000 of your employer’s money. Just as bad as being late, avoid wasting meeting time with too much small talk and holding distracting side conversations.
2) Only invite those who need to be there. In some political environments people are afraid NOT to invite someone of power to a meeting. They fear that person will feel left out of the loop and get their feathers ruffled. It’s easier just to get a bigger conference room and invite everyone. One alternative is to make the optional people – well, optional. Make it clear that those invited as optional are only being invited so they know the meeting is being held and that meeting minutes will be distributed to everyone.
3) Have a purpose. Before you schedule the meeting, ask yourself, “What outcome will justify using the collective time of all of these people?” Do you need a decision made? Are the right decision makers invited? If anyone of them declines the meeting, is it still worth having? If the goal was to reach a decision and none is reached, you’ve just wasted a lot of peoples’ time. If you are just updating them on status, are you covering the appropriate level of detail? Status meetings should inform people of progress and present issues that need decisions made by the status recipient. If the information you provide is too detailed or not detailed enough to allow them to make decisions on the issues, you’re wasting their time – and yours.
4) Stay on topic. If you are a meeting attendee, stay with the agenda. If you have a point to make and you know it’s later in the meeting, make a note and bring it up then. If you have an additional agenda item, wait until the end of the meeting if there is time. Make sure it applies to all attendees or else excuse the ones to which it does not apply. If you are the meeting organizer, it is your responsibility not only to stay on topic, but to facilitate others to do so as well. If someone brings up a point that is out of the meeting’s scope, it’s your job to politely ask them to put it on the parking lot or take it off-line. Don’t let people hijack your meeting. The easiest way to do that is to have an agenda. Highlight the purpose at the top and have bullet points for each item that needs to be discussed. If someone goes rogue, remind them politely that it’s not in the scope of this meeting.
5) Type and send out meeting minutes. What’s the point of bringing together all of these people to make a decision if you’re not going to document it in some way. If six people get together and make a decision, a week later, no one may remember which option was decided up on. Write up meeting minutes that document the decisions made and sent it to all attendees and anyone else that may be interested in the decision. Meeting minutes are not a transcript of the meeting. It should be a summary that takes no more than 10-15 minutes to type. Rather than type a separate document, I often add notes to the agenda in a different color to signify the decisions and salient points.
Meetings are like food. We, as a society have partaken far too much and have become obese in our collective conversation. We need to go on a meeting diet, consuming fewer meetings and making them more nutritious. Maybe someone could invent a meeting gastric bypass surgery where we would get sick if we held too many meetings.
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As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.