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Meet in the middle

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

There are moments in life that cause us to rethink that which we were once certain to be true. Such a moment happened last night as I finished watching season 1 of Cobra Kai. For those who don't know, Cobra Kai picks up 34 years after the original Karate Kid film and examines the original story from Johnny Lawrence's point of view. Long story short, I'm now open to the possibility that Daniel LaRusso was the bully and that we have all been too hard on Johnny. This new kid comes to town (LaRusso), start multiple fights, dumps water on a classmate during a school Halloween dance, and wins a karate tournament with an illegal kick to the head. Not cool!

Paradigm officially shifted.

With my mind open to a new way of looking at the world, I turned my focus to my 'favorite' subject -business meetings. Maybe they aren't so bad. Perhaps they're misunderstood, just like Mr. Lawrence was back in the year nineteen eighty-four. Meetings must be a good thing considering the amount of time and money we're spending continues to increase. Logic would dictate that if we're investing all of this time and money on meetings, that we're getting a reasonable return on our investment.

A study found that: 15% of an organization’s time is spent in meetings. Unproductive meetings waste more than $37 billion per year. Executives view more than 67% of meetings as failures, while 92% of workers surveyed admitted they multitask in meetings.

Nope, I was wrong. Meetings are, at best, a necessary evil of the business world that need to be managed. Meetings are overused and are often misused as way to feel like we're sharing information with our teams. We meet too much, we share too little and we're spending billions for the privilege. It's time to 'sweep the leg' on meetings.

Now before we go too crazy, this isn't meant to suggest that you ban internal meetings across your organization or to pull a Mark Cuban and refuse to attend any meetings that don't involve picking up a check. What I am suggesting is that we need to completely rethink how we're using meetings. We need to meet in the middle. Elon Musk, for example, has three simple rules for meetings; No large meetings, if you're not adding value to a meeting you should leave, and you should not hold frequent meetings.

While I agree with these rules, I also think they are an oversimplification of a complex issue. Most organization struggle with communication and inclusion and they try to solve those issues by inviting large groups to update meetings. For larger organizations, you could have hundreds, if not thousands, of people attending meetings to hear executives give an update. Internal meetings have therefore become the go to way to communicate with large teams. These meeting are scheduled with the best of intentions and that is likely one of the reasons why we see meeting time increasing year over year.

You're launching a new product and want everyone to be aware and excited - you hold a large meeting. Has there been a disruption in the market? No problem, hold a meeting to communicate with the team. Business segment is doing well? Hold a meeting and include a slide or two to celebrate the contributions of the team. If you ban all of these meetings, you lose something. The dichotomy being that by scheduling all of these meetings, we're losing something as well - time.

Our goal should be to reduce internal meetings as much as possible while seeking to limit any negative impact on communication and culture. This will require a review of the communication style across your organization. For example, if the purpose of the meeting is to give the larger team an update (e.g. we talk you listen) with Q&A at the end then the question becomes is a real time meeting required? Could that same mission be accomplished via a recorded video message? Could you employ a decentralized model where the executives pass the message to senior leaders who in turn, share with junior leaders to update their teams. Is there a better way?

When meetings are deemed necessary we must hold the meeting owner to a high standard. If the topic is important enough to interrupt the working day then the preparation should match the importance. This will require more work on the part of the meeting host as they will have to be better prepared and set a realistic objective for each meeting. They own the meeting and own the outcome. This goes well beyond preparing an agenda and putting a PowerPoint together.

With that in mind, here are three ways to improve your meetings.


1. Limit the number of participants

Limiting group size is one sure way to increase engagement and communication. Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, found that the most productive meetings contain only five to eight people. Unsurprisingly, this is also the optimal team size but we'll save that topic for another chat.


2. Keep it short

Target less than 30 minutes for meetings and avoid going over 60 minutes at all costs. Not only will this force you to keep your agenda on point, it will also help participants avoid meeting fatigue and reduce their propensity to multitask.

Bonus tip for Microsoft users; change your calendar settings to End meetings early. This will change the standard 30 minute meeting to a 25 minute meeting and give you the option of making the 60 minute meeting a 50 minute event. We know work expands to fit the time available so reducing the standard meeting could save you hundreds of hours each year.

If you're using Outlook for Microsoft 365, you can now have Outlook end your meetings a few minutes early. You can choose a different duration for meetings under one hour and meetings over one hour.
Select File > Options > Calendar > Calendar options
Check the End appointments and meetings early checkbox.

3. Stop Wasting Time

Set the ground rules for your meetings. They start on time, they end on time, and no cell phones allowed. Bonus points for no reading off of power point presentations. If there is data to review, it should be delivered before the meeting and the participants (less than 10) will be expected to have done their homework by reading the meeting brief in advance.

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