Galvanized by their success at promoting the concept of eliminating corporate email, productivity experts are switching their gaze to another time-waster: meetings.
It’s said that managers spend between 30 to 80 percent of their time in meetings. There are estimated to be more than 11 million business meetings in the US every day, and that most executives attend about 62 meetings every month. CEOs are worse — they spend 85 percent of their time in meetings. Incidentally, 63 percent of meetings don’t have agendas.
The biggest problem with meetings, writes Luis Suarez — who credits himself with starting the “World Without Email” movement and who is now calling for a “world without meetings” — is that they take your most precious commodity, time, and put it under the control of someone else. In fact, Stephen Fishman goes so far to say that “Forgetting that uninterrupted focus is the critical ingredient to allow work to be completed is the biggest mistake made in Corporate America.”
Consequently, some organizations and executives are tackling the idea of eliminating meetings, or at least making them harder to schedule.
Dudley Dawson suggests creating dummy meetings, which are then cancelled, to give yourself a couple of free hours a day to work. “Corporations are filled with people that have nothing to do but fill their day with meaningless meetings. It makes them feel as though they are accomplishing something,” he writes. “The problem is that there are other employees that need to actually get work done.”
Similarly, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules 90 to 120 minutes a day of nothing, in 30- to 60-minute blocks, which he calls “buffers.” It’s basically a more sophisticated version of Dawson’s dummy meetings. “Thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, information and knowledge that's incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues; and iterating through multiple scenarios,” writes Weiner. “In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out for yourself.”
On the other hand, Fishman points out that communicating about work and making sure everyone knows what’s going on is not a distraction from work — it is work. So there are times when some meetings may be necessary. Organizations that find they can’t eliminate meetings entirely are doing what they can to make them shorter and more productive — or, at least, uncomfortable.
Here are some tips for making meetings more productive:
- Instead of scheduling meetings and trying to fit work around that, schedule the work and then fit in the meetings, perhaps by scheduling them only after lunch.
- Apple’s Steve Jobs, following the principle of simplicity, had meetings comprised of “small groups of smart people,” and didn’t hesitate to kick out people he felt couldn’t contribute. (At the same time, Apple wasn’t perfect; former channel head Nilofer Merchant relates that after her six-month sabbatical, she found that the the conversations at the meetings were the same — word for word — as they had been when she left.)
- Google follows similar tenets, adding that a single decision-maker must be at the meeting. On the other hand, former Ernst & Young consultant Al Pittampalli’s book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting, calls for decisions to be made before the meeting, and that the meeting’s purpose is to support the decision. Both strategies address the same problem: Meetings held for the purpose of delaying a decision rather than making one.
- At least kill status meetings, which most people believe don’t help them get work done.
- Merchant goes on to suggest that, ironically, part of the problem with meetings is when they’re too short to actually discuss an issue in enough depth to do anything about it.
- Some suggest that the problem isn’t meetings, it’s actually PowerPoint, and to eliminate that instead. Or send out presentations ahead of time for discussion at the meeting.
- Eliminate laptops, tablets, and smartphones to keep distractions to a minimum. A focused meeting is a shorter meeting.
- Have meetings standing up. That way, the meeting is limited to the length of time people are able to stand.
The only problem is, if you’re planning to eliminate both email and meetings, how are you going to let everyone know?
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