Management Meetings — From Waste of Time to Productivity Drivers
13 tips plus 6 magic ingredients for more efficient and effective meetings
Two crucial questions to managers: Do you spend less than 40% of your working time in meetings? And do more than 60% of meetings deliver tangible results that are put into practice? If you can answer both questions with yes, your company is among those that have already developed a reasonably functioning meeting culture. Congratulations! If not, don’t worry, you’re in good company and it’s not that difficult to make lasting improvements to your meeting experience. However, a consistent approach is needed in the planning, implementation, and follow-up of a meeting as well as in the continuous cultural development.
According to a study by Porter and Nohria, CEOs spend 72% of their time in meetings. For middle managers it is often no less. Anyone who invests so much of their lifetime is entitled to have it done productively and efficiently. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Many managers tell us that meetings are one of the main reasons why they cannot work effectively.
Stop! The statement is worth a closer look. Meetings prevent you from working efficiently? Then something is basically wrong. Meetings should be facilitators and drivers of good and productive work, not inhibitors. How do we get there?
Meetings die in the planning phase
I have never experienced a well-prepared meeting that completely failed. Therefore, it is well worth investing in meeting preparation. The time it costs is saved by far. The following five preparation rules help to plan effective meetings:
1. Only schedule meetings that are really necessary and promise results
In every company there are meetings that are held regularly because they have always been there. Nobody questions sense, necessity or procedure anymore. Most of the time they are simply there. Such meetings belong on the garbage heap of the company’s history.
Even for one-time meetings, you should always question whether they are really necessary, or whether a phone call or an e-mail might be enough.
2. Invite only those participants that can really contribute
Keeping meetings small makes them more efficient and effective. Of course, there are always good reasons to invite more people, e.g. to keep the flow of information up, not to offend anyone, etc. This may all be right, but it removes energy from the meeting. Do you really want that?
3. Choose the right format
Depending on whether it is a strategy meeting, a cross-functional coordination meeting, a review, a project status meeting or something else, a different format is required. The following questions must be answered in the planning: How much space and which room do we need? What technology is necessary? How much time is appropriate? Do we sit or stand? Will it be visualized? If so, what and how? How will the discussion and decisions be moderated?
A practical suggestion: For many meetings it is worthwhile to experiment with the format of a stand-up meeting. The meeting is short, everyone is standing, the time that each individual can contribute is limited, and everyone is actively asked to contribute. Just give it a try, if necessary, with an internal or external moderator who knows Scrum.
4. Make sure everything works
Every productive meeting needs a well-founded preparation of content, timely invitation and information of participants, and trouble-free technology. Simply relying on everything being solved when everyone is sitting together is fatal. The agenda and documents must reach the participants in good time so that they can also prepare themselves. And the technology must also be working properly, especially when participants are virtually connected to the meeting.
Magic ingredient #1: Deliverables
Hardly anything makes as much of a difference between a good meeting and a failed one as clear communication about what concrete results are expected from the meeting. If people are invited to a meeting either under the title “Marketing Strategy 2025” or under the title “Marketing Strategy 2025 and Deliverables: 5 activities we should start this month”, results will differ widely.
Meetings come to life through facilitation
Far too often meetings are treated by the initiators like neglected children. Once they are born, they hope that everything will work out by itself. But this is not the case. Meeting facilitation is hard and valuable work. The following six principles can help.
5. Start with a perfect setting
A format and a setting are designed in the planning phase. All should be in place before the first participants appear. In this respect, meeting managers have a lot of work to do before the meeting starts.
6. Activate and slow down
Good meetings are actively moderated. This includes not only ensuring that times and agendas are kept, but also that a sensible approach is taken to personal characteristics. Some people tend to talk too much and dominate topics. They should be actively slowed down. Others simply keep quiet about their brilliant knowledge. For them, it is important to actively stimulate their contribution, e.g. by addressing them directly or using different activating formats such as visualizations, quiet brainstorming, etc.
If there are standards for moderation in the company, it helps a lot. Over-eloquent speakers then know that an interruption is not meant personally, and the silent ones are prepared to have their contribution actively called up.
7. Banish multitasking
Closely related to this is a certain amount of ‘education’ of people who participate in the meeting. The bad habit of writing text messages, surfing the Internet or answering emails during a meeting is one of the biggest productivity killers. It should be clear to everyone that this is not acceptable. Anyone who thinks he or she should do it anyway should be removed from the meeting, because he or she is showing that there is neither interest nor contribution. The rule ‘only participants who can really contribute’ applies immediately.
Wait, is multitasking currently only a signal that the meeting is drifting away unproductively? Then a ‘punishment’ of individuals is inappropriate. Such meetings have to be put on track or cancelled immediately.
8. Take minutes and document decisions
It sounds almost too simple to be included in this list. Still, a reminder cannot hurt.
Magic ingredient #2: Visualize
Hardly anything has changed meetings more in recent years than the advent of live visualization. No more endless lines of text and no more being overwhelmed by overly elaborate presentation slides. Instead, topics and results are made visible in real time on a whiteboard or simply on the wall. This can range from simple sticky notes to complex graphic recording. The advantage: A shared understanding of the topic is developed much faster within the team. And you also have a good basis for documentation.
Magic ingredient #3: Timeboxing
Ok, it’s not a secret anymore, but still magic. Each meeting itself gets a clear timebox. It must start and end on time. And within the meeting, each agenda item also gets a clear and binding timebox. If you have to face ‘challenging participants’, you can even timebox single contributions. By the way, this is also and especially true when you know that you are the problem yourself.
There is one exception: If it turns out that a meeting will not lead to a tangible result, its timebox ends immediately. It is cancelled.
Meetings are not an aim in themselves, but enablers
If meetings are only held for the sake of the meeting itself, they should be cancelled without substitution. But this is rarely the case. Even fruitless meetings are usually scheduled because they are intended to achieve something. However, this is not only accomplished through the meeting itself, but requires targeted follow-up. This can last in extensive activities. Here are just the three points that are directly related to the meeting.
9. Stick to decisions and consequences
You might call this ‘no-brainer’. Sure, you’re supposed to do what you discussed and decided in the meeting. So, let’s boldly assume at this point that this is the case in every company and at every meeting. If not, please fix it.
10. Track results
Now it becomes more difficult. In fact, there are always meetings where the decisions are later implemented and even successes is achieved, but they are not followed up, evaluated and documented. We could say, ‘as long as everything works, it doesn’t matter’. Nevertheless, valuable information is lost for the company.
Magic ingredient #4: Get feedback
Only a few companies have implemented the system of collecting feedback from the participants after each meeting. It’s pretty easy to do these days using survey tools, but it feels strange at first. Will I now be judged for my meetings? No, it’s about establishing a learning process and at the same time capturing input from participants that was only generated after the meeting. By the way, such meeting feedback is most straightforward when it is a standard feature of the company.
Meeting culture is changing slowly
Everything that has been said so far sounds simple, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, it is often difficult to change the meeting culture in companies in a sustainable way so that meetings really become an inspiring driver of future developments. The following five points will help.
11. Get to know your own weaknesses
It’s not so easy to identify where there is room for improvement in the meeting culture. That’s why it is especially helpful at the beginning of a change process to gain an outside view. Sometimes, new employees that join the company from outside are a good sensor for the particularities and weaknesses. However, since they are simultaneously seeking their place in the company, they reach their limits at the latest when problems arise in the hierarchy. Only the courageous view of a coach or consultant can help.
12. Develop standards
Conducting good meetings is difficult and stressful when you have to reinvent them each time. It helps a lot when there are good and proven templates for formats, meeting rules, moderation techniques, etc. Developing them is a bit of extra work, but it pays off quickly.
13. Educate people
Nobody is born to be a good meeting facilitator. As with everything in life, you have to learn how to do this first. The chance to develop in this direction should be open to any person who sooner or later has to moderate.
Magic Ingredient #5: Break up meetings rigorously
Especially in the early stages, it is incredibly effective and important to cancel meetings when it becomes clear that they will not produce results, the preparation is inadequate or the meeting is conducted unprofessionally or against the meeting rules of the house. A breakup is a clear signal and has educational potential if used consistently and assertively.
Magic ingredient #6: costly participants
Everyone understands that it makes sense to invite only those people that are really necessary for the meeting and that can contribute something. However, the interpretation of this definition often turns out to be very divergent.
It is clear to everyone that a meeting is not only an investment of one’s own working time, but also that of colleagues. Depending on the industry and seniority, a manager’s hour costs between 80 and 300 dollars, sometimes even considerably more.
In the transition period from a loose and overflowing meeting culture to a more effective one, it can be a suitable tactic that people who invite to a meeting pay a certain amount per participant and time unit from their departmental budget into an interdepartmental pool. This raises awareness of the true costs of a meeting, tightens schedules and greatly increases the accuracy with which people are selected for a meeting.