I used to work for an organization that loved meetings. During the course of an average day, I would spend three to five hours in meetings. There were never agendas, people often read directly from PowerPoint presentations, and half of us in the meetings weren’t really sure why we were there. I often was the person in the room mentally estimating everyone’s salary and wondering how much of the organization’s money was being wasted in comparison to the cost of the issue being discussed. After 10 months, I changed jobs because I couldn’t tolerate all the poorly organized meetings.
Since that time, I have come to the conclusion that there are only three circumstances when a business meeting is really necessary. The first situation is when the law requires it — such as shareholder and board of directors’ meetings. The second situation is when untethered brainstorming needs to take place (I’ll describe these meetings and how to organize them in more detail below). And, finally, the third situation when a meeting is worthwhile is what I call off-site, strategy meetings (again, I’ll discuss these in more detail).
Before scheduling any other type of meeting, I think it is best to ask if a meeting is really necessary and the most productive method for conveying information. If it’s well planned and will take less than 15 minutes, a meeting might be an efficient use of everyone’s time. In most cases, though, it’s often better not to have a meeting — especially if that meeting will be disorganized, irrelevant to its attendees, and/or a poor use of resources.
I mentioned the untethered brainstorming meeting above as a good use of meeting time, and I truly believe this is an essential type of meeting for a successful business. If not well organized, these types of meetings can be disastrous. An organized brainstorming meeting, however, can be an amazing gift to a company. To have these meetings, you must first have a team that trusts and respects each other. Without trust and respect, real brainstorming won’t take place and all that will happen is political posturing. Second, you will want to keep attendance at the meeting to 10 people or fewer in most every circumstance. Third, it’s best if the issue to be brainstormed can be e-mailed to everyone 24 hours before the meeting. This gives people time to think about the issue before arriving at the meeting. Next, the meeting should have a three part agenda: 1. Statement of issue to be brainstormed, 2. Brainstorming, and 3. Delegation and statement of future actions and deadlines. Each section should have a set amount of time alloted to it, and a stop watch should be used to stay true to the time commitment. Additionally, it may be helpful to have someone who is not part of the discussion act as a moderator. And, finally, it should go without saying, but the discussion should be lively (maybe even heated) and focus on ideas instead of people. At Unclutterer, our pitch meetings are held in this fashion.
The third meeting type I listed above as an appropriate meeting is the off-site, strategy session. These meetings are best done with teams of 10 or fewer people, and everyone on the team present. An agenda should be circulated at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Each item on the agenda should be focused on over-arching strategies within the organization or team building. Avoid presentations, and instead aim for push-up-your-sleeves type discussions. Again, I recommend a timer and a moderator to help keep attendees focused. I’ve found success in telling everyone to bring nothing but themselves and their favorite coffee mug or Nalgene bottle to the meetings (no laptops, no PDAs, no CrackBerries). A blank notebook and writing implement are then furnished to each attendee at the start of the first session. Exemptions to this rule might be reference materials approved before the meeting that are copied and distributed as supplemental information for a discussion. Finally, it is best to have these meetings marked in stone and set on a regular schedule (every six months or at the start of each quarter or once a year). These meetings are what guide an organization or department and should be treated with that level of respect.
How would your job change if you restructured your meetings to only include these three types of meetings? Can you see how your business might improve its productivity? Do you agree or disagree with my organized meeting suggestions? Any horror stories to share about disorganized meetings? Share your ideas with us in the comments.