Curing the meeting epidemic

A 2008 study by Lloyds TSB insurance shows that the average attention span has been reduced during the past decade from 12 minutes to a mere five. Such a finding prompts the question: Why are so many organizations holding one or two-hour long meetings, back-to-back, all day long?

In most organizations, meetings are now considered a time to take care of work – and while work can sometimes get accomplished in meetings, they are more often drawn-out status sessions. Furthermore, back-to-back meetings severely restrict our time to perform job functions or think about growing and improving the business. While a “meeting-free” business environment is probably not an ideal solution, there are several ways to boost meeting productivity and ensure a more efficient use of everybody’s time. Consider the following tips for your next meeting:

  1. Define the meeting. Every meeting should have clear – preferably written — objectives and a concisely stated purpose. Is this a decision-making meeting, an informative meeting, a brainstorming session? A decision-making meeting will have very different characteristics and objectives compared to a brainstorming session. Explicitly tailoring your meeting to align to each meeting type will help ensure a more effective discussion. During the meeting, everyone from the analyst to the CEO should be empowered to call a time-out if the discussion is veering off topic. Be respectful of everyone’s time and make every effort to end the meeting on time. After the meeting every attendee should know explicitly what he or she is tasked with accomplishing, if applicable.
  2. Lead by example. Typically, the schedules of today’s professionals, from senior leadership to new hires, are so busy that the only time to do actual work is during meetings. However, when individuals spend meetings multi-tasking, it conveys a lack of interest or importance on the topic at hand. If you cannot afford to give the meeting your undivided attention, do not attend or reschedule for a better time. When the meeting starts, ask that laptops be closed and phones put away.
  3. Embed meeting facilitation into your employees’ annual review and goals. Running effective meetings is a skill that your employees should strive to master. Offer training, provide guidance, solicit feedback, and review progress throughout the year regarding meeting facilitation. An easy way to gauge improvement is to send out periodic surveys to meeting attendees that solicit feedback on strengths and weaknesses of the facilitator. Practice makes perfect – and an investment in effective meeting facilitation will help improve company culture and free up resources for value-added activities.
  4. Promote the expression of divergent opinions in your meetings.  Conflict can actually be a good thing – at least when it is managed constructively. Empowering all meeting participants to speak their mind often leads to more creativity in brainstorming sessions and more informed decisions during board meetings. Another reason to promote differences of opinion: it is one of the best ways to keep people engaged. Individuals tend to pay closer attention and effectively listen when discussing a topic they are passionate about.
  5. Do something different. Try simple changes such as asking for the objective at the beginning of every meeting – or for longer meetings – taking five-minute “email breaks” every 30 minutes. While it may be tempting to let a meeting slide out past the scheduled end time, try walking out at the proposed end time and don’t look back. Also, try scheduling meetings that are in atypical increments. A 20 or 50 minute meeting invitation can make it easier for someone to fit the discussion in their schedule.  Even the drastic measures of blocking your calendar for one afternoon a week or engaging third party facilitators (inside or outside your team) to lead the meetings from an unbiased perspective are good ways to quickly change attitudes about meetings in your organization.

By implementing some of these straightforward ideas, your company can overcome meeting paralysis – and free up employees to focus on high priority business initiatives.

Categories: Management & Leadership