Throughout my life, I have always been an okay manager. My strength was personal leadership—the “one on one.” My meetings, on the other hand, were often a waste of time.
This was because I didn’t really feel “in charge.”
My co-workers often felt that my meetings wasted their time— not directly, of course. We just weren’t getting good results. This is largely because I often abused the discussions to bring myself up to speed.
The louder co-workers on my team got more speaking time than was useful (check out our article on how to stop dominating meetings for more information). Those who could present well also had a better stand. I failed to create an environment where everyone discussed and critiqued ideas. My co-workers were right: my team meetings were a waste of time – at least for the team.
I was in good company. Of the 23 hours executives spend in meetings each week, an average of 8 are unproductive.
You certainly sit in meetings that are a waste of time too often. Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming in meetings and doing other tasks in parallel due to boredom?
By the way, executives (including me) often rate their own meetings as very positive— unlike the rest of the participants. This is clear evidence of an “I’m not the problem” attitude!
Studies show that the most active participants think this about their meetings. And who usually does most of the talking? That’s right, the executive.
So if you assume that your meeting went well, you naturally don’t seek feedback. So, unfortunately, improvement is hardly in sight. Your meeting continues to be a waste of time for yourself and others. The participants’ frustration continues (e.g., irrelevant agenda items, overlong duration, lack of concentration).
What a waste of time a meeting can be!
A bad meeting leads to low engagement and poor productivity in the medium term. The effects of a lousy meeting are then discharged through hours of grumbling and complaining by the participants. Who hasn’t complained about a meeting? Even I complain about everyone else’s.
Ineffective meetings wear down talent and erode a leader’s power and influence.
Unfortunately, you don’t notice this until it’s far too late.
People’s first reaction is always (ALWAYS!) that you should eliminate all meetings. I have also experienced this with customers. There are simply no more meetings at all. Mostly, by the way, with the remark that Steve Jobs also found meetings superfluous— really? Honestly!
Of course, most meetings can be shortened easily—but having no meetings is unrealistic and counterproductive. Meetings can efficiently bring ideas and opinions together, allowing people to get their work done in a more coordinated and collaborative way.
So, my goal was not to cancel all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective ones, improving the quality of those that remained.
I needed to understand what makes a meeting good and what makes it not so good.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t good training on how to design a meeting. I wondered what I could do to make stop creating time-wasting meetings.
When a training did appear, neither my supervisors nor I were allowed to attend. Meetings are just done the way they’ve always been done. Period.
It’s up to you to make positive changes by objectively assessing and improving your own meeting skills. Here’s an example:
Observe yourself. Take a few minutes after each meeting. Was your meeting a waste of time? Think about it. Think about the participants’ behavior, the dynamics of the conversation, and the content that was covered. Ask yourself:
- Who was distracted?
- Was anyone having side conversations?
- Who did most of the talking? Was it you? One or two other people?
- Did the relevant discussion shift to irrelevant topics?
- Were all opinions and ideas fairly similar?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, you know you have a problem.
But now, let’s not be too negative and take a positive look at your meeting:
- Was there a healthy debate?
- Were the participants engaged?
- What do you want to do to encourage that kind of engagement?
Talk to people who regularly attend your meetings. I’ve either done it one-on-one or by sending a small survey afterward— an anonymous survey, of course. Anonymous is usually a better option because co-workers are more honest. My favorite question is:
- What worked well?
- Should I leave something out in the future?
- Was there something missing?
I’ve learned that I need to focus on two things: Preparation and execution.
Everyone knows that you have to prepare for important things. Then it gets better. But when it comes to meetings, things change. Everyone comes when they want, no one has prepared points, and everyone improvises—including the meeting leader. Who is surprised that the meetings are a waste of time? This dysfunction is even worse with regularly recurring team meetings.
I forced myself to proceed as follows:
Establish why we are meeting and what the goal is and ask the other participants to suggest agenda items because that encourages:
But if you have no idea what you want, and there is no list of agenda items, you had better cancel the meeting.
Here’s the thing: If you know what the meeting is about, then you should decide who should be there and, more importantly, who should not. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and in the end, this leads to a cacophony of voices.
But before everyone gets offended because you didn’t invite them (yes, that can happen), you can take two measures:
- Create a timed agenda (most often done at executive meetings).
- Send minutes to everyone who wasn’t there.
People often underestimate time and place. It is easy to always have a meeting at the same place and time, but this routine can be counterproductive.
Here’s what I’ve implemented with success:
- Moving to a different location
- Meeting in the morning instead of the afternoon
- Experimenting with unconventional time blocks (e.g., 50 minutes instead of an hour)
- Changing the seating arrangement
- Taking a walk with groups of 2 to 4 people
- Meeting in a beer garden (well, ok… not everyone is in Munich).
- Standing helps to increase the efficiency of the meeting and the participants’ satisfaction – if it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes.
My problem was that I had too many recurring meetings even when there was nothing to talk about. It was just time for another—it was on the calendar.
I changed to irregular meetings. This significantly reduced the number of meetings and, at the same time, improved the quality of the meetings held.
But that was only half the battle!
Execution begins as soon as participants enter the room. People often view meetings as an interruption, as a distraction from their “real work.”
You can start by thanking the participants for their time. This works wonders. I would also always thank them for keeping cell phones and laptops off. No one needs to take notes— we will have a protocol. Always.
When it comes to implementation, Verne Harnish’s Weekly has worked well for me.
I’ve been using it for almost ten years—with minor changes.
- 5 minutes: Good News. Really, it’s worth starting with a little joke or something positive.
- 10 minutes: Priorities. Reconcile the status of priorities. Review any metrics not listed in the daily summaries.
- 10 minutes: Customer and co-worker feedback. This is the time to review feedback from customers and co-workers. What issues are surfacing daily? What are colleagues hearing?
- 30-60 minutes: 1 or 2 issues. This is where we get to the heart of the matter. I only focus on 1 or 2 key points. These are either based on feedback from the team or come from strategy.
- Who, What, When (WWW). “Who said what they will do and when they’ll do it.” That is then the protocol. That’s it.
- One-Phrase Close. Each participant summarizes the meeting in one word or sentence. This allows you to gain insight into what everyone present is thinking and feeling.
What are some techniques to get participants to actively take part in the discussion?
- Try to keep to the times for each agenda item.
- To gauge interest in an idea, ask for a show of hands.
- Silence can be essential to allow participants to develop ideas or form opinions without hearing others’ thoughts.
- “Brainwriting,” for example, involves individuals quietly reflecting and writing down their ideas before sharing them aloud; research shows that this approach produces more creative thinking than brainstorming.
I’ve always found silent reading to be an effective meeting tool. When participants read a proposal before discussing it, it can increase their understanding and persistence with the new idea and thus their engagement with it.
I had 2 participation issues to solve:
I needed to get more people talking, and I wanted them to participate in genuine dialogue and debate.
To solve the participation problem, I reminded people that everyone is involved. I asked quieter participants to contribute their thoughts or lead certain agenda items.
Sometimes I played the devil’s advocate, and if that was too obvious, I asked a colleague to do it. This added more spice to the discussion. Drawing things out in this manner can help.
What’s it like today?
Although I am proactively diagnosing my meetings and learning how to improve them, it remains a learning process. I’m getting a better handle on the problem of time-wasting meetings.
I don’t always succeed in running a good meeting, but after each session, the process starts again. That’s just the way it is. Like everything in life, it remains a continuous process of change. What’s most important is to continually make an effort to stop meetings from being dreaded time-wasters.