How to Fix the Most Soul-Crushing Meetings

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Meetings are notoriously one of organizational life’s most insufferable realities. U.S. companies spend more than $37 billion dollars a year on them. Employees in American companies spend more than one-third of their time in them. And 71% of senior managers view them as unproductive. In one global consumer products company that I work with, my firm’s organizational assessment revealed an unusually intense degree of aggravation over how much time was consumed by meetings, leaving “only evenings to do our day jobs,” according to one interviewee. In a meticulous inventory, we calculated the hours spent in meetings by directors and above across the enterprise (a population of about 500). They collectively spent more than 57,000 hours per year in recurring meetings. That’s the equivalent of six and a half years!

Better meeting techniques, like distributing agendas, holding meetings standing up, or enforcing a “no device policy,” are all well-intentioned practices. But none of them will salvage a meeting that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

Meetings are productive and meaningful when the people in them have a clear reason to be there, a definitive contribution to make, and together, they advance strategic priorities. Any standing meeting, whether it’s of a departmental leadership team, a cross-functional group owning a process like innovation or talent management, or a task force managing a six-month transition to a new technology, should be designed and linked to a broader governance plan. Together, standing meetings should synchronize the entire organization in a meeting cadence that executes strategy and delivers results. But too often, meetings are disconnected from the intentional distribution of decision rights, resources, and priorities across the organization, making them unnecessary.

Meetings that aren’t part of effective governance design take on two destructive pathologies: they become meetings as source of power or meetings as bottleneck.

When a meeting becomes a source of power, being in charge or included as a participant affords you disproportionate degrees of influence and status. They justify their existence with lengthy presentations most attendees find boring and irrelevant, but who nod eagerly in a feigned sense of importance. In the consumer products company I mentioned above, one interviewee told us, “People would get to meetings 30 minutes early to make sure they sat near the executive they wanted to be seen with.” This kind of politicization leaves most leaders in meetings disempowered, employees disengaged, and meetings dysfunctional. Meetings should serve to distribute power, not concentrate it at the top. And when they do, leaders are more inclined to use power responsibly.

You and Your Team Series

Meetings


  • The Seven Imperatives to Keeping Meetings on Track
    How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting
    Do You Really Need to Hold That Meeting?

    When a meeting becomes a bottleneck, decisions or resources are passing through people who likely have little or nothing to contribute, usually because “they’ve always been involved.” Standing meetings like these are often like layers of old wallpaper pasted over one another; they’ve far out-lived their usefulness. At the consumer product company, many of the standing meetings were of groups that had been formed years prior, but as the organization evolved and shifted strategies, were never dissolved. In fact, there were six different groups managing two different processes governing product development. Many of those groups had been formed decades earlier, each one gripping tightly to their claim over determining which projects in the pipeline moved forward with what investments. The wars between departments doubled the time required to bring a new product to market because teams were often given conflicting directions.

    These are just symptoms, however. The underlying problem is bad governance. To fix these issues in your organization, establish the following three elements.

    1. A clearly articulated mandate with defined decision rights. Regardless of the type of meeting, the scope must be clearly defined, and narrowed to just a few key areas. In another multinational company I work with, the executive team, the business unit teams, the regional teams, and the country teams were painfully duplicating work — everything from P&L management to key hiring decisions to customer relationship management. Meetings became war zones, as each group complained about how one of the other groups was undermining what they believed was theirs to do. In a holistic redesign, we created charters for each level so they were focused on the work they could uniquely execute. Strategy and priorities were set at the executive team level. The business unit teams focused on talent, customer segmentation, and marketing. The regional and country level teams were responsible for P&Ls, customer relationship management, and geography-specific priorities. With these responsibilities set, they could create meeting agendas focused on what they needed to be doing (and publish them weeks in advance), and all of the requisite decision rights and resources were allocated accordingly.

    2. A synchronized cadence. It may seem obvious but a meeting’s frequency and allotted time must be commensurate with its charter and decision rights. Teams and task forces governing near-term priorities will need to meet more frequently for shorter durations of time, while those focused on longer-term priorities should meet less often for longer durations of time. In the multinational example above, the cadence of meetings was choreographed to keep each level appropriately linked and informed. Each group met monthly for two hours; the executive team on the first Monday of the month, the business units on the second Monday, the regions on the third Monday, and the countries on the fourth. Any inputs or outputs from one to the other were immediately sent on to the next group. This also allowed each team to keep their respective organizations up to speed on progress, shifts in priorities, and their counterparts’ work.

    3. The right composition and metrics. Too often leaders let hierarchy define who comes to a meeting. If you are a direct report to the leader calling the meeting, you attend. Which makes everyone feel compelled to bring something to say. This is how meetings devolve into useless status updates. Worse, under the guise of making people feel “included,” meetings balloon into U.N.-like summits with dozens sitting in a room wondering why they are there. The composition of a meeting should be defined by its charter and only those who have something specific to contribute—expertise, authority over resources, responsibility to execute—should be included. Anyone else who has a stake in the meeting outcome should be informed. For example, if a meeting charter has significant implications for finance, one person from finance can attend and keep their finance colleagues informed.

    There should also be metrics assessing how well a meeting is executing its charter. For example, if a Customer Success team composed of Sales, Customer Support, Onsite Technical Assistance, and Engineering is tasked with effective implementation of new technology for customers, then customer complaints, speed of adoption, open ticket time, and overall product satisfaction should be tracked so the team – and its stakeholders – know if it’s contributing as intended.

    In my experience, ineffective meetings are often indicators that they shouldn’t be occurring. To test this, I ask groups, “If you stopped meeting, who besides you would care?” If they struggle to respond, I have my answer. If you want to give your organization a great gift, immediately shut down recurring meetings that don’t meet these criteria. The cheers will be deafening.

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