Triage your meetings – a pragmatic approach to wasting time at pointless meetings

A Doodle survey of more than 6,500 European professionals and executives in 2019 calculated the cost of unnecessary meeting globally at $591 billion. That’s almost certainly a significant underestimate. On average, the respondents calculated that they spent 13 days a year in pointless meetings. Increased working from home will almost certainly have added to the problem, as meetings become less efficient while disengaged participants get on quietly with other tasks. Even worse, focus groups of HR leaders in a research study into post-Covid leadership, which Marion Devine and I conducted for The Conference Board earlier this year estimated that the average number of meetings people attend every week has increased substantially, by anything up to one third, simply because it’s easier to bring people together in virtual space.

How do you know whether a meeting was a waste of time, in whole or in part. Some basic signals include:

  • There was no clear, shared consensus about what the meeting was intended to achieve. Was it to make a decision? To develop new ideas? To test alternative approaches? To bring everyone up to date? To clarify roles? To build teamwork and psychological safety? If you have mixed expectations, you can’t help but have pointless conversations. (Yes, team building is a valid and useful purpose. We had just such a meeting a few weeks ago. A key part of the success was that getting to know each other better was the only Any work issues were parked for discussion in a meeting specifically to address them.
  • The meeting spends more time reviewing the past than imagining the future. You get irritated as you tell yourself “We know all this”
  • You find you attention drifting away from what everyone else is discussing. That’s different from the tuning out we do when something in the conversation really gets us thinking — having “an inner moment”. Inner moments happen when we hear something that is especially relevant. Drifting happens when we can’t see the relevance of the conversation to any of the key objectives we feel the meeting should be concentrating on.
  • The conversation appears to be going round in circles. It’s easier to keep in a straight line, if you know where you are going.
  • You find yourself thinking “I don’t care what we decide, as long as we make a decision!”
  • You start doodling on the agenda…!
  • You struggle to find concrete action points to take forward.

Traditional meeting structures with apologies for absence, matters arising and so on make things worse, because they use up valuable time before getting to the point (if they ever do) of What are we meeting for?

 Instead, meetings should start by asking questions such as:

  • What do we all think we are here to achieve? (Precision matters!)
  • How will we conduct this meeting purposefully, to achieve that purpose? (Norms matter!)
  • How will we make sure that what needs to be said, is said? (Unspoken thoughts may be the most important contribution.)
  • What’s the unique contribution each of us wants to make? (Individual voice creates deeper collective voice!)
  • What do we want to learn? (If we didn’t learn anything, we didn’t change anything!)
  • How will we make this meeting enjoyable and memorable? (If you’d rather be somewhere else, why are you here?)

All of which suggests that it’s time to triage meetings. One simple approach is to assess each meeting invite on the following criteria:

  1. What’s the value I can contribute by attending?
  2. What’s the value I can gain from attending?
  3. What contribution will this meeting make to our business priorities?

Scoring each on, say, a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very high, allows us to prioritise.

If you are the person organising a meeting, you can apply a similar triage process:

  • What’s the value to you in holding the meeting?
  • Who needs to be there to make the meeting worthwhile? Do they understand and buy into the importance of being there? (It’s surprising how many meetings intended to make decisions end up not doing so because key people aren’t there!)
  • How much of the agenda could be sorted in advance, off-line?

It’s also useful to reflect on your own behaviours with regard to meetings. Do you respond immediately and instinctively or take time to assess whether this is a good use of our time? Do you explain to colleagues and direct reports the rules, by which you prioritise meetings and by which they can put meetings into your calendar? When you decline meetings, do you tell the organiser why? Do you review enjoyable and tedious meetings to draw lessons you can apply to your own?

In short, meeting savvy has become a core skill for survival. If you can’t learn it, you are going to feel even more overwhelmed, overworked and frustrated at how little you accomplish in formal working hours. And the overspill into your non-work life and into the work and non-work lives of your direct reports is not going to contribute anything to the sum of human happiness.

Or, you could take a more radical view and refuse to attend any meetings unless the holder convinces you it’s a priority use of your time. Maybe that’s a bit too drastic and not an option, if you aren’t at the top of the workplace pyramid – but it’s a potential aspiration!

© David Clutterbuck 2020




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