All business meetings are a waste of time. Got your attention? Good. Now ok I admit that maybe there is the odd rare occasion that a meeting is well executed, achieves a set purpose, and utilises time effectively but sadly that is the exception rather than the rule. All too often meetings drone on and on, seemingly without direction, and serve no real purpose other than to allow a few people the opportunity to hear themselves talk. If you need to be convinced just how much of a waste of time most meeting are all you need to do is just consider those professions that charge clients based on a set time limit of work – doctors, lawyers and so on.
Doctors and Lawyers
Do you think that the doctors at your local clinic have time for all day meetings? Hell no, they are busy trying to see as many patients as they can. What about lawyers? Do they sit around discussing the finer points of law in great detail every day? Nope, they are busy doing research and advisory work for their clients. These professions actually try to have the fewest number of meetings they can.
The reasons are pretty obvious – they make money based on the time spent doing certain activities that the client considers useful. This includes things like performing a health check-up or advising on your will and definitely does not include sitting around talking all day.
These professions are not measured on how long they sit at work but on how much useful work they can achieve in a single day. They need to ensure they are maximising their productivity in order to achieve more (and thus earn more). As a result these professions have become very clever at weeding out the useless rubbish from their workday and wasteful meetings are public enemy number one.
How to Have Productive Meetings
I like to be positive so it’s only fair I digress here to talk about how to actually have a productive meeting – an endangered and rare species that is very hard to find in its natural cube farm habitat.
Contrary to my earlier broad statement, meetings actually can be very productive if we follow a few simple rules:
- Decisions not discussions – you can discuss the pros and cons of an idea before a meeting via email or phone. Don’t waste time thrashing it out in a meeting room.
- Distribute prep material early – everyone should have read the required info before the meeting. Get it to them early and if they don’t read it they don’t get a say in the meeting.
- Set an agenda – there must be an agenda defined and agreed upon before the meeting. This should also outline the rules of the meeting.
- Set time limits – there must be an overall time limit for the meeting but also time limits per agenda item.
- Designate a chairperson – this person must run the meeting according to the agenda and the time limits and ensure everyone stays focused on the task No ifs, buts, or excuses that you were too lazy
- Record it – take notes, minutes, audio, video, whatever. Just get a record of what was said. This encourages people to only be useful
- Action it – everyone should leave the room knowing precisely what tasks are left and who they have been assigned to
It’s not hard – it’s just common sense. I bet most office-based workers reading that list would not have been too shocked by it, so it begs the questions: why do people insist on breaking these rules and having wasteful meetings?
Informal Chats, Quick Catch-ups, and Other Myths
Beware the informal chat or the quick catch-up as these are just time-wasting meetings in disguise. If you hear these words I recommend you look at your watch, screw up your face and make a series of non-committal “umms “and “ahhhs” until they leave you alone. Failing that, run.
These meetings are the ones that just drag on forever because they break all the rules listed above. They are just an excuse for people to get together in a room and be boring. These meetings have a tendency to drag on well past what represents a valid definition of “quick” and are often nothing more than an ad-hoc forum for attention hogs to get in the spotlight.
Attention Hogs: The Main Reason Meetings Suck
Next time you are stuck in a meeting that seems like it has been going for eternity cast your eye around and make a mental note on who is doing all the talking. Chances are it is the same two or three people always espousing their opinions. These are attention hogs and they love a captive audience.
Humans tend to trust and believe those who talk the most at meetings. The willingness to talk first and loudest sends a not-so-subtle message of confidence and bravado which is interpreted as competency. This was proven a few years ago in a study by Cameron Anderson and Gavin J.Kilduff (and thanks to the guys at Freakonomics who pointed this out to me), which examined how people evaluate each other in meetings. The outcome (as reported by Time) was very interesting:
Repeatedly, the ones who emerged as leaders and were rated the highest in competence were not the ones who offered the greatest number of correct answers. Nor were they the ones whose SAT scores suggested they’d even be able to. What they did do was offer the most answers — period.
“Dominant individuals behaved in ways that made them appear competent, above and beyond their actual competence.” Troublingly, group members seemed only too willing to follow these underqualified bosses. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the teams used the first answer anyone shouted out — often giving only perfunctory consideration to others that were offered.
So all people need to do to appear competent in meetings is talk lots. Are all those long boring meetings starting to make sense now? Are you suddenly identifying who is an attention hog at your work?
Next time you have a meeting try enforcing some rules to make it more productive and see if you can limit the time those attention hogs get. Otherwise your life will be spent walking from one meeting to the next and never actually working. It's hard to be passionate at your job if you never get to achieve anything.