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Meetings, Meetings, Meetings!?#?!!%&*

by David Brock on June 12th, 2008
“A person’s stature in business is measured by the number of meetings on their agenda!” Sometimes I actually believe people think this is true. I see too many people participating in too many meetings—that accomplish absolutely nothing!

The problem is worse in today’s “always available” global business environment. People are always on, conference calls, and other “meetings” consume our lives. I recently did an informal audit of a number of clients and found many scheduling meetings from 5:00AM through midnight! I also found, that during this 19 hour period, many were in meetings for as many as 12 hours during that time.

The meeting is not an end–it is a means. Increasingly, I believe meetings should be the last alternative we choose to get things done.

I was struck today by Fred Wilson’s A VC Blog. He outlines some guidelines to managing “Unproductive” Meetings. They included (with very liberal interpretation by me):
  • Limit the length of time up front–keep it short.
  • Have a hard stop that you enforce.
  • Set an agenda at the start of the meeting. Here I disagree with Fred a little. I think the agenda should be set and distributed before a meeting. If I possibly have the option, I do not attend meetings where an agenda has not be pre-distributed.
  • Don’t say yes to every request that is made.
  • Do it right in the meeting, if you can: Here Fred is referring to quick emails or phone calls. We all know that “to-dos” don’t get done. Those that can be accomplished by emails or calls, I do immediately.
  • Ask the person who called the meeting to follow up: Have them send the notes with what is being requested or has been committed. If they don’t, then it can’t be important.
I’d add some other rules that help me:
  • All meetings should be held in rooms without chairs.
  • Never-never-never order coffee or other refreshments for a meeting. Consider not allowing refreshments—even water brought into a meeting. People’s thirst of caffeine addictions will keep meetings short.
  • Any presentations should be distributed as position papers beforehand. People should be required to review these before hand so that you can use the meeting time to get things done. Lou Gerstner used a variation of this technique very effectively at IBM. If a participant has not reviewed the materials before the meeting, then they don’t get to speak.
  • If decisions are to be made, make sure these are clearly identified in the agenda.
  • Decide what the meeting is about and keep it focused on that one thing. Is it an informational meeting? Is it a decision-making meeting? It can’t be both.
  • No multitasking involved–if you are at the meeting, be In The Meeting! No email, except at the end to do follow ups. No phones except at the end, No blackberry’s or anything else. If those are more important, don’t waste your time and those of others in the meeting.
  • Calculate a cost to each meeting, make sure there is a positive ROI to meetings. For consultants, time is money–I am very sensitive about my time. Assess the investment in time (on a fully burdened cost basis) that each person is making in the meeting. Is the time justifiable?

The most important thing is block large portions of your time for yourself. You need time to think about what you are doing. You need time to to the work. You need time to plan.

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