How to avoid the modern meeting curse

By Tim Farish

Tim Farish writes his first article for us since transitioning from Director to becoming an Associate, based in Oslo with the firm he co-founded there, Quickminds. Here he writes about a dilemma we all face….the meeting!

We‟ve all been in meetings where there appears to be little structure or, at best, the structure is secreted in the heads of the participants. This is particularly true for internal meetings but can also apply to external ones.

Whilst having meetings is a necessary and valuable part of our business lives – there are typically too many and their purpose is, at best, questionable much of the time.

Too many meetings are automatically scheduled and don‟t have a clear purpose. This then allows things to meander, often unnecessarily and is very frustrating for all concerned.

Considering that a significant part of our working week is spent in meetings, and (according to 3M‟s research) we spend an average of 1-1.5 days a week in meetings, this very conscious strategy is warranted from most organisations if they are to avoid wasting large amounts of such vital resources.

This article has tips for running better meetings and maintaining commitment whilst still getting things done.

Tip no. 1:

Ask ‘why are we having this meeting?’ Or if you prefer, „what‟s the purpose of this meeting?‟

This is obvious in a lot of cases (safety briefings, strategy progress reports) but may only be generally defined and not specific. It is also unclear in many situations, or just not communicated to every attendee. A lot of the purpose of meetings is held in the heads of the organisers or most senior person in the room. If they are too vague or overly concerned with detail then the reason for attending may feel like a mystery to most participants.

A lot of meetings really fall under the title: “So that the MD can feel more comfortable and in control or, so we can all bitch and moan about clients”, yet are labelled as something like „product development news and progress update Q3‟.

The danger is that if attendees feel the purpose is not properly communicated or respected, they conclude that personal agendas are at play and they go through the motions, and resentment builds.

While most people realise that the need to be in control, or bitch and moan, is a very important one – especially for bosses – this needs to be tightly controlled.

Action point: Have a clear „purpose‟ on the pre-meeting communication. It helps to think of the outcome you want to create. For example, “To develop a better CSR offering‟ is better than „CSR ideas‟.

Tip no. 2:

Have some time in the agenda for flexibility. For most meetings, agendas are important and a critical ingredient for a functioning and healthy outcome.

The problem comes when an agenda item warrants deeper exploration at the time and it is „parked‟ for another time – when it would have been better to have dealt with it there and then.

Of course it is a judgement call, but this often happens when there is no clear purpose. There will always be agenda items that warrant more time than is planned, while conversely there will be items which are quicker than planned.

Action point: Cut the number of items on the agenda by 20% to build in flexibility.

Tip no. 3:

Be explicit about expectations and outcomes from the meeting. There are many different types of meetings and some do not need structured outcomes, for example client relationship meetings. But most meetings are improved when expectations are made explicit.

Action point

: Be clear at the start of the meeting what the desired outputs are, and at the end write minutes with specific actions points by specific people with set and agreed deadlines.

Tip no. 4:

Learn to finish on time. This is really important for engagement in any future meetings.

If you are known as someone who always over-runs, people will start switching off and future attendance participation will inevitably drop.

By committing to finish on time you send out a strong message that you respect other people‟s time as well as someone who knows how long „things‟ take.

If your meetings regularly run over time, it is probably a sign that you are trying to do too much and have unrealistic expectations. Once again, having a clear purpose will help you deal with this.

Action point: Have a timing plan for each agenda item and then add 5 minutes. If you finish early, people will appreciate it.

Tip no.5:

Regularly check in with the ‘quietest voice in the room’. People respond differently in meetings when there is a group dynamic and there is a tendency for the loudest, most extravert characters to dominate air-time and agendas.

This is natural but needs to be kept in check. Just because someone is quiet does not mean they have nothing to add – so bring them in. Use the phrase „silence is agreement‟ with humour and as needed to get the quiet to speak up for themselves.

By doing this more regularly you begin to deal with the issue of „airtime battles‟ which occur when individuals feel that there will not be enough time to deal with issues, or that they will not be heard.

Action point: Ask for input at least 2-3 times during a meeting, and state that „silence is agreement‟, to try to get them to speak up.

Tip no. 6:

Have a meeting-free week or month. This might seem crazy but just think about it. Once you have proved that the business world does not collapse if meetings don‟t happen for a period then you are likely to find that only the most important issues i.e. those that require a meeting will be scheduled.

This will lead to a reduction in the quantity of meetings and therefore an increase in productivity.

Action point: Identify blocks of time in the diary and colour-code them as „meeting free zones‟. You can always schedule meetings around this block but treat it like a holiday from meetings.

This is not high powered alchemy, it‟s a skill and a good habit to get into. It‟s also a good a set of tips as any for fighting the “witches’ curse” of the modern meeting.

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