Meetings – Don’t Waste Your Time!

16th March, 2017

We’ve all been in meetings that have dragged on and not addressed all or any of the issues they were designed to solve. If meetings are so often inefficient, why do we still have them?

Like most business owners, I spend my fair share of time in meetings with various stakeholders; accountants, financiers, lawyers, board members, executives, briefing sessions with staff, workshops, presentations and the list goes on. Just like everyone else, outside of work, I attend more meetings with teachers, doctors, trades, etc.

What I have noticed over the years is that meetings can be a big waste of time. So, what can we do to maximise efficiency and minimise time wastage?

In my experience, there are a few very simple techniques that can make a massive difference. They’re not always easy to stick to (or convince others to stick to) but I guarantee it’s worth persevering. Here goes.

  1. First of all, ask what needs to happen as a result of this meeting

Whether you’re calling the meeting, or just being asked to attend, this is an extremely valid question to ask. What is the point of bringing people together? What issue needs to be discussed, debated or solved? What is the desired outcome?

Perhaps you need to get a budget signed off. Maybe you need a strategy approved. You might even need to reach an agreement on a contentious subject. Whatever the case, it’s essential to work out the purpose of the meeting before you do anything else. If there’s no clear point, there should be no meeting. The same applies if the issue is straight forward, minor, or involves few people – these things can usually be solved over email.

Which brings me to point two…..

  1. Decide who actually needs to be there

Once you have identified your goal, work out who needs to be involved. Who are the key people that can make this happen? Who can you absolutely not afford to leave out? If these key people can’t be there, is there any point meeting at all?

People think that as the most senior person in the room is the CEO, it’s them who will be deciding things. But this is not always the case. If it’s an IT matter, for example, they will delegate decision-making to the IT Manager – so if they can’t be there, they don’t need to be. In fact, inviting people who aren’t involved in the decision-making process can actually be quite disruptive.

When you’re drawing up your list of invitees, also consider whether everyone needs to be present in person, and for the whole saga. If you need senior executive approval to green light a simple decision, it is much easier to invite them in for ten minutes at the end of the meeting rather than sacrificing an entire precious hour or more. When you whittle down your attendees, it’s also easier to agree on a time and location that works for everyone.

Finally, remember that it works the other way too: you don’t need to go to a meeting just because you have been invited (unless it’s your sister’s wedding!). If you don’t feel your presence will add anything, politely decline and explain why. Your time is precious, and (unless you are hanging out for some mixed sandwiches and social banter) you can probably find a better way to spend it than in yet another meeting.

  1. Set your agenda

Once you know what needs to be decided and who will be in the room, work out the structure.

In Australia, we are pretty laid back – but the downside is that a meeting can quickly slip into disorganisation, so an agenda is key. It just needs to be a list of topics we need to cover. Let everyone know what you want to talk about, so at the very least they can prepare. I also like it when I see an agenda with time allocated to each topic, so I can see how long we will be spending on what.

Preparation is also vital if you want to use time wisely. There’s nothing worse than being asked to contribute to a discussion you have no idea about. I always look at the week ahead and prepare for what’s coming up, whether that involves background reading or talking to other people. Then in the meeting I’ll be in the right headspace. If a discussion is sprung on me, that’s when I’ll be more likely to say something on the spot and change my mind later. Decisions usually require a bit of reflection beforehand. If people aren’t given time to prepare, they just can’t operate at their best.

  1. Be ruthless with time management

Speaking of optimal operations, it should go without saying that punctuality is pivotal. How many times have you sat around playing on your phone waiting for someone to grace your meeting with their presence? Well, those days need to end. People need to show up on time – otherwise you are wasting time and money.

When you kick off the meeting, it’s also a good idea to appoint a time keeper, who’ll keep an eye on both the clock and agenda – and can nudge things along should you get stuck on a particular point. If someone’s keeping their eye on the big picture, you can at least keep things moving, get something done, and park the thorny subjects for later (or delegate them).

It’s also important to open the meeting properly and by that I mean simply stating the purpose of the meeting and quickly summarising the points you’ll cover. Quite often we forget to do this.

Another small but important thing is to introduce the people present and explain why they’re there – so we all know what stake each other has in the meeting.

  1. Don’t forget to follow through

So you’ve had your meeting, covered your topics, reached your conclusions and time is almost up. How do you wrap things up – and make sure people don’t forget the details the moment they leave the conference room?

Allow time to summarise what has been said and make sure someone’s been taking notes. Then email these through, along with action points, to everyone who has attended. People appreciate clear direction and if you don’t use your meeting to drive action, you risk having to endure yet another meeting to go through…well, exactly what you’ve just gone through.

Once you have set standards for efficient, effective and entertaining meetings, your team will follow – and meetings may start to be the most productive part of your work day!