If there’s one common experience among knowledge workers, it’s that we all spend too much time in meetings. I’ve yet to meet the person who wants to participate in more meetings—or, for that matter, finds significant value in the meetings they’re already participating in. And yet, everyone’s talking about increasing the amount of collaboration people do—which in many cases, simply means having more meetings. Web conferencing, video conferencing and audio conferencing all are designed to replace in-person meetings, not to eliminate them altogether.
Other technologies, of course, are designed to get rid of meetings, or at least make them more productive. Wikis are especially good for this, because they allow project teams and other collaborative groups to do most of their planning, updating, brainstorming and project management online, each at his or her own pace as time and interest allow. If companies do nothing else with wikis, they should use them to make their meetings better—not so much to increase collaboration, but to make it more effective.
Still, most companies aren’t there yet. Which means most of us are stuck in old-fashioned conference calls and boardroom pow-wows, wishing we were somewhere else. As long as we’re daydreaming, here are some tips for making the time better spent:
Keep it short. When it comes to meetings, less is usually more. Most meetings are scheduled for an hour but could be conducted in half that time. Shorter meetings make for more productive meetings, since everyone knows there’s a stricter time limit and gets to the point faster. And shorter meetings make for happier, more attentive participants—since everyone knows there’s a stricter time limit, and that their time won’t be taken up longer than it has to be.
Don’t let meetings run overtime. Meeting creep is legion, and it makes people wary of attending meetings in the first place. Once a meeting goes past the scheduled time frame, whatever that time frame is, participants lose interest. They immediately feel as though their time is being infringed upon and disrespected, and they check out of the meeting as a result.
Have an agenda. Even if you don’t share it with the group, make sure you know exactly what you want to accomplish and stick to it. Scope creep leads to meeting creep—and neither leads to a productive session.
Cut people off. You can do it nicely, but if someone’s dominating the conversation, even if he’s on topic, ask him to take a break. If he’s off topic, cut him off immediately and suggest the discussion be taken offline. And if two people are arguing a point between themselves, ask them both to take the discussion offline—right then and there—and return to the group once they’ve reached a consensus, or can offer a summary of their respective viewpoints.
Keep them small. Sure, there’s value in multiple viewpoints, and managers like to be seen as open to all comers. But inviting non-stakeholders to meetings generally just makes them wonder why they’re there. Better to ask for their input one-on-one. You’re more likely to get an honest answer that way, and you can then share their ideas with the core group for broader discussion.
Forgo “regular” meetings for wikis, which are much better suited to the purpose. Weekly or (heaven forbid) daily team meetings generally do very little to boost productivity. Unless you’re leading a team into battle, they shouldn’t need the kind of “let’s roll” motivation such meetings are (often wrongly) believed to engender. Meanwhile, \important issues usually need to be discussed immediately, not during a pre-determined meeting time; and anything that can wait probably doesn’t need to be discussed by the entire team, if it needs to be discussed at all. Wikis and other types of project management software are the place to go for status updates, deadline management and the like. No one likes attending round-robin sessions in which each participant talks about the issues that are important to him or her, then promptly multi-tasks during everyone else’s floor time.
I’ve written before about the Best Buy meeting model, which mandates that meetings not be mandatory. The great thing about that approach is that you learn pretty quickly which meetings are effective and which aren’t, as participants vote with their feet (or ears, as the case may be). If no one’s showing up to your meetings, chances are your meetings aren’t worth having.