Are your meetings just bad habits?
Meetings drive everybody crazy. It's not a particularly new revelation to say that most meetings are a waste of time. We have all experienced meetings that seem to drag on or go nowhere. We feel like we are being robbed of our chance to get real work done or just go home and be with our family. Meetings are too often abused and misunderstood. We seem to have forgotten why we have them in the first place.
When we have unproductive meetings they tend to go off track because:
- The agenda is not clear
- The intended goal is taken off-course
- People see it as a time to assert themselves rather than achieve a collective goal
- To create work (or the illusion of it) since many people are required to sit in an office for eight or more hours a day
- People are invited out of courtesy, not necessity
I am not suggesting that these are the only meeting habits that waste our time. We should re-evaluate ALL meetings, making ourselves aware of WHY we choose to have them or participate in them in the first place. It's good to take a step back so we can understand why. Only then can we look at efficient ways on HOW to accomplish our goals in other ways.
Why we have meetings is not a challenging question. Meetings are commonly used to achieve these goals:
- Update colleagues or clients
- Reach some sort or agreement or alignment on an issue
- Progress an issue forward
- Complete some work as a function of a working group
These are, in themselves, good intentions. Ultimately, creating some value through collaboration and sharing is time well spent. Although our best intentions may not always be the outcome, we can generally agree on why we have meetings.
The trouble we seem to encounter is typically HOW we achieve our goals. How do we best share, collaborate, and reach consensus, (or at least a path forward)? The usual answer is 'lets have a meeting'. This is where we need to re-think our assumptions.
Many articles and books immediately go to discussions like "6 Easy Meeting Tips" or "Have a Successful Meeting if You Do these 3 Things". Although these suggestions are insightful, they are based on the assumption that you need to get a bunch of people scheduled to show up together in a room. I believe the knee-jerk reaction to 'hold a meeting' is the biggest problem with meetings. The problem hardly is meetings, it is the way we work which forces us into situations that create bad meetings.
Lets look at the bad habits we carry with us that ultimately create bad meetings:
- I need to know everything that's going on
- I don't know what's important so lets get together and get on the same page
- I need to be spoon-fed information because I am too busy (or lazy) to find it myself
- I am unorganized so rambling in a room is the best way for me to communicate
- The email string has gotten out of control so we need to hold a meeting
- I'm too lazy to clearly communicate (i.e. document) what I need or what I know so I'll just tell you instead
- It's not clear who is accountable for what so we all need to get together and solve a problem
- Something has changed, so we need to have a meeting to discuss the change instead of just accepting it and move on
Few of these problems can be solved by using "6 Easy Meeting Tips" or other published tactics. The reason why is that the way we work is flawed. That's probably troubling for readers who are looking for a quick fix to awful meetings. Improving meetings, and ultimately the way we work, is like losing weight and getting into shape. There is no quick fix, no matter what you would like to believe. To fix meetings is not that hard and it's not that easy, but we need to shed bad habits and pick up new ones. That's it.
Let's look at some behaviors that can give your team some of their sanity back. Remember, our goals are to share, collaborate, and advance ideas. We don't have to have meetings (every time) to accomplish these goals.
1. Use technology to make your life easier. We still work like we are handling paper documents. Electronic mail, file folders, cryptic file names, taking written notes in meetings. What if the internet was organized this way? We would never find anything. If we can find things on the internet why can't we find something in a company of a few hundred or a few thousand people? UPS doesn't hold meetings on where packages should go. They move 15 Million per day. Information in a company should move as easily as these packages.
There are a lot of products out there that solve this problem such as: Basecamp, SharePoint, Asana, Trello, and Solve360 to name a few. Not wanting to change or progress with technology is a bad reason not to work this way. People do it every day. You can change now OR in 2 years when you panic and decide that your constant losses and dismal staff retention requires an immediate change. Your choice.
2. Learn how to document properly. Writing your thoughts down clearly helps others understand what you know or what you need. This book does an amazing job of making something as dry as documentation interesting and engaging.
3. Don't be so afraid. Fear is the main reason we procrastinate, overreact, and lose focus. Fear is the reason we hold meetings and invite 25 people instead of 2. This blog is helpful.
Do you notice the common thread through in these suggestions? It's leadership. Your team requires leadership to adopt innovative approaches and support new working behaviours and attitudes. These behaviors require you to work differently and accept positive change. Sometimes it's a good idea to disrupt yourself, before someone else does it for you.
This may sound like a lot of trouble to go through just to cut out a few meetings. But like I said earlier, excessive meetings aren't really your problem, only the symptom of a disorganized, unfocused, legacy-trapped business.
I wouldn't waste the time to write all this if I didn't experience this change first-hand. My goal was to cut out 20% of meetings. I've reached over 60%. I still catch flack for not organizing or attending meetings. I'm not advocating NO MEETINGS. I am suggesting that if your business is set up and running well, and your team knows what's important, you just don't need that many meetings.
Then, when you are reaching this stage of business flow, the lists of "5 Effective Meeting Habits" that you read online will actually be useful because useful meeting habits can only be applied to useful meetings.
What are your thought on meetings?