C-suite executives spend 40% of their workweek in meetings, according to The Wall Street Journal. Harvard Business Review found that 15 percent of an organization’s total collective time is spent in meetings. Just how much of that time is effective depends largely on how the meeting is run — but top managers and CEOs don’t get there by wasting their company’s time. They use strategies that maximize productivity, minimize frustration, and end with people motivated and happy. And that approach can increase people’s productive work time by a full 20 percent.
If you want to turn a meeting from a potential obstacle to a catalyst, here’s a useful approach: think of the meeting as an airline flight. Imagine the people at meetings as passengers on a plane, trapped together in a confined space for a period of time. Consider what could happen to mar the outcome: take-off is delayed, the flight path strays off course, the airplane hits turbulence delay. The result could be a bumpy ride that lands too late for passengers to make their connecting flights — or next meetings.
As a leader, here are five effective strategies for taking the meeting from beginning to end — and coming to a safe and productive landing. I call it the Meeting Jet Process:
Question its purpose. It may seem counterintuitive, but start by questioning the necessity of the meeting. It will make some people uncomfortable and seem like a challenge, but it’s key to the role you play as a leader. Question what the real purpose of the meeting is, and then ask if that purpose is best served by a meeting. And if not, what’s the better way to accomplish that objective?
Assess the costs. Meetings all have a cost: There’s the direct cost of what people are paid, and then there’s the cost of the time lost to the meeting. There’s a tangible cost to all the tasks people are not doing because they are in a meeting.
Create an agenda. A well-crafted meeting agenda functions like a flight plan: you know exactly where you are going and when you will get there. Each item should be listed with a title, timeframe, and process — such as ‘presentation, Q&A, 10 minutes for discussion.’ Then define its purpose and focus, both vital for keeping the meeting on its intended course. Under purpose, write two clear sentences on why the item is more important than all the other things everyone needs to do. Under focus, write a specific expectation for group — do you want to arrive at a better way to streamline the workflow, for instance? Create and distribute this agenda ahead of time.
Respect everyone’s time.
Make sure the meeting starts on time and ends on time — no matter what. Some savvy managers designate odd start times — like 2:17 — as that tends to make people arrive on time. Calibrate the schedule to fit the agenda — and if the agenda has “27 minutes” as an estimated timespan, make the meeting last 27 minutes. Appoint a designated timekeeper who can note how on-target you were. The more data you have on how long meetings really take, the more accurate your agendas will become.
Stick to a process. Without a clear process, you’ll easily run into people’s stress behaviors. Know-it-Alls will dominate with irrelevant tangents; Whiners and No People will find fault with every idea; Snipers will make snarky comments; and assertive people may turn into Tanks in order to push their viewpoints. The Yes, Maybe and Nothing people simply drop out, and reserve their opinions for after the meeting, when it’s too late. Install these three mission-critical processes to keep everyone on track:
Air Traffic Control. Keep everyone focused by using a visual device, like a whiteboard, with a topic and process box. In the topic box, write the subject to be focused on in the current moment. In the process box, write the process to be used, i.e. discussion, brainstorming. Only allow people to speak to the topic, using the specified process.
Speaking order. Without a speaking order, passive people talk too little and assertive people talk too much and don’t listen — they’re too busy waiting for a space to jump back in. A voluntary speaking order entails people raising their hand so their name can be written on the whiteboard. Since they know when their turn is coming, they relax and listen to each other in the meantime. Better is a pre-established circular order that goes around the room, ensuring that everyone has a chance to speak. In all cases, establish a time limit on talking time.
Flight recorder. Record what people say so everyone can see it, whether using a flip chart or projector. It gives the speaker’s point both importance and visibility over time. If you do not have a visual, then people tend to repeat their point to keep it in people’s awareness. Making it visible eliminates repetition, and saves a lot of time. Flight recording also serves another purpose: everyone sees all points in their totality, depersonalized and equally important. When all points are taken into account, the group arrives at “holographic thinking,” with a greater and more detailed understanding of the subject and higher-quality ideas and solutions.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is legendary for running meetings with crystal clear agendas — it keeps things on point. Surprisingly for a tech executive, she uses a spiral bound notebook. When all the items on a page are covered, she tears out the page. The objective is efficiency — and she achieves it. The five steps above enable you to transform a meeting into a productive, welcome part of the workday. Best of all, you will recover 20% of people’s work time, and everyone will thank you for it.
Written by: Dr. Rick Brinkman is a communications expert. His book Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst (McGraw-Hill 1996,2003,2012) has been translated into 25 languages. His newest book is Dealing With Meetings You Can’t Stand: Meet Less and Do More (McGraw Hill, 2017).