How NOT To Have Mind Numbing Office Meetings

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I’m listening to a half dozen people have a long and rambling meeting about their local parent teacher organization (PTO). I’m supposed to be blogging, but I find eavesdropping on this train wreck to be more interesting. Why? Because I think this is how most meetings seem to go in modern business, and I wish that people knew that there were other ways to accomplish things. Here are my ideas on how not to have mind-numbing office meetings.

Schedule for Brevity

One of my old bosses, Dan Carney, used to tell me to schedule meetings to be no more than 10 minutes. As project manager, he had me do all the running around outside of the meeting so that I could have individual conversations with the stakeholders in the pending meeting, and so that I could hear them at length outside the time frame of the meeting. This worked magical wonders, for three reasons:

  1. People knew the meetings would be brief so they showed up on time.
  2. People knew I’d done my homework, so they just nodded their heads at the right parts.
  3. People gave their best efforts to be on the “good” side of the updates at these meetings, because being “behind” or “delayed” or in an otherwise negative status really stands out in a 10 minute meeting.

If you think you can’t schedule meetings to be shorter than they are, you’ve never seen the President of the US’s schedule. Meetings don’t have to be 30 minutes, just because Outlook defaults to 30 minutes.

Keep Agendas Taut

What this PTO meeting is doing wrong is that they veered away from the agenda into other topics. If you don’t keep to the agenda, you’re asking for rambling and wandering. I’ve heard the same point raised seven times in the last 20 minutes. No one is disagreeing. They’re just not moving on because they don’t have an agenda that’s pointing them towards agreeing, disagreeing, and moving on.

Keep Meetings Report-Minded and Action-Driven

Meetings are read-outs of information, and/or they’re a place to agree upon decisions and actions. Discussions aren’t necessarily the goal of meetings. In fact, discussions are a perfect way to drown a meeting in conversation. The reason is simple: people aren’t prepared to debate at most meetings, and so they fall back on repetition and minutiae. By keeping meetings focused on decisions: new logo or stay with the old (for example), you’re pushing towards a better result.

Table Anything That Doesn’t Fit the Format

Never ever ever let someone else throw a mess into the meeting. Stay on top. Thank the person for raising the issue. Mention that you’ll put it into consideration for the next agenda. Handle it offline. Do whatever. But don’t handle topics that aren’t on agenda in the meeting “just because we’re gathered around.”

Meetings Aren’t Work

Meetings aren’t work. They’re what we do as a penance for not rolling along like clockwork. Sure there are some exceptions to that, but think about it. What are meetings at your company and with your culture? Most times, more often than not, meetings are what you do that keeps you from doing your real work.

Questions?

That’s all that’s on my agenda. You’re welcome to add your thoughts and feelings.

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  • http://ajleon.me ajleon

    Thanks for this post, Chris. Sometimes it’s tough for us to keep our team meetings from going on tangents because you don’t want to cut somebody off and look like a jerk or embarrass them. But you’re right, it doesn’t do anyone any good and the value of meetings will be diluted for everyone. 10 minutes, that’s my goal this week. :)

  • http://ajleon.me ajleon

    Thanks for this post, Chris. Sometimes it’s tough for us to keep our team meetings from going on tangents because you don’t want to cut somebody off and look like a jerk or embarrass them. But you’re right, it doesn’t do anyone any good and the value of meetings will be diluted for everyone. 10 minutes, that’s my goal this week. :)

  • http://www.philsforum.com Phil Wrzesinski

    I like some of what you are saying, but like others here, I am not a fan of the information-passing meeting. Send me a memo.

    I plan every meeting around one simple statement… This will be a successful meeting if…

    Once I can fully finish that statement, then I have my goal for the meeting. Without a goal, meetings are pointless exercises that waste time and demoralize the staff. But when the goal is clearly understood, and a plan to reach that goal is well executed, meetings become fun and useful.

    That is just one of six steps I use in planning every meeting whether it is 5 minutes or 55 minutes long.

    I published a free eBook with all 6 steps titled “Staff Meetings Everyone Wants to Attend”. (you can find it in the Freebies section of my website).

  • http://twitter.com/kyleplacy Kyle Lacy

    Thanks for the post. I think it’s important to table issues as well. If it doesn’t serve the purpose of the meeting we’ll come back to it at a later date.

  • http://twitter.com/kyleplacy Kyle Lacy

    Thanks for the post. I think it’s important to table issues as well. If it doesn’t serve the purpose of the meeting we’ll come back to it at a later date.

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Chris, you chill me man. I have seen this type of advice paralyze companies.
    Please acknowledge that “meetings” covers a wide variety of business gathering, everything from the weekly round-up to the annual retreat. What you describe is perfect for the weekly round-up, but I see too many “meeting efficiency experts” make boneheaded declarations like brainstorming the next big, important, critical, company on the line project will last 15 minutes after which we will select the best one. As for the President of the United States, the secret to his 30 minute meetings is that everyone comes prepared to the hilt. Everything is researched, debated, baked and sucker-punched. The participants are briefed and rehearsed. Total meeting time before the President’s 30 minute meeting? 30 to the power of…

  • http://twitter.com/TomSchmitz Thomas M. Schmitz

    Chris, you chill me man. I have seen this type of advice paralyze companies.
    Please acknowledge that “meetings” covers a wide variety of business gathering, everything from the weekly round-up to the annual retreat. What you describe is perfect for the weekly round-up, but I see too many “meeting efficiency experts” make boneheaded declarations like brainstorming the next big, important, critical, company on the line project will last 15 minutes after which we will select the best one. As for the President of the United States, the secret to his 30 minute meetings is that everyone comes prepared to the hilt. Everything is researched, debated, baked and sucker-punched. The participants are briefed and rehearsed. Total meeting time before the President’s 30 minute meeting? 30 to the power of…

  • http://www.jeremymeyers.com/ Jeremy Meyers

    Thanks for this.

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  • http://www.meetcom.com Marsh

    Obviously you have attended too many BAD meetings. Meetings may not be work in your view, but a GOOD meeting takes a great deal of work! Look at all the events you speak at – that require a great deal of planning and organization. Even meetings on a smaller scale require work to make them a successful meeting. There are many different types of meetings for different purposes to achieve different results. I would bet some of the best ideas in the world are the result of some amazing live meeting collaboration – with people sharing information and building on each others ideas. It takes planning, it takes energy and effort at the meeting to be engaged and contribute.

    I’ll see you at your next online meeting – hope it is not more than 10 minutes and waste my time since you seem to imply with this Post that most meetings are “penance for not rolling along like clockwork”. You are welcome to attend one of my meetings anytime and I guarantee that it will require work, be engaging, require some effort, but will achieve the planned meeting’s purpose results.

  • David

    I don’t buy into time limits or “no sitting”, as I’ve seen great progress made when my group gets comfortable for a long discussion. It’s rare, but it happens. I try to find out whether that can or will happen, and if not, wrap it up, move on and try to leave everyone feeling OK about talking “offline” as much as necessary.

    A few basic things to find out: do we want/need to meet? does anyone have anything *most* of us need to talk about? anyone need ideas from the group to move forward on something?

    A few things to avoid: what are you working on? how’s it coming? did you get my email?

    Some of the best meetings are the ones we cancel in favor of getting work done.

  • David

    I don’t buy into time limits or “no sitting”, as I’ve seen great progress made when my group gets comfortable for a long discussion. It’s rare, but it happens. I try to find out whether that can or will happen, and if not, wrap it up, move on and try to leave everyone feeling OK about talking “offline” as much as necessary.

    A few basic things to find out: do we want/need to meet? does anyone have anything *most* of us need to talk about? anyone need ideas from the group to move forward on something?

    A few things to avoid: what are you working on? how’s it coming? did you get my email?

    Some of the best meetings are the ones we cancel in favor of getting work done.

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  • Amy McCloskey Tobin

    Hey, I’m with you Chris, every step of the way. When I’m in my last few minutes I will long for the HOURS back I wasted in painfully uesless meetings. I see it’s a very touchy subject for some and I wonder if they were “running” the meetings they’re so upset about you criticizing.
    I saw a product in Entrepreneur and found it on Facebook too – BRING TIM – it’s a clock your program with all of the attendee’s salaries so that you can actually measure how much the meeting cost you…great idea.

  • MM

    I am not a big fan of meetings, mainly for the reasons you stated. The only reason a meeting should be required is to get all members on board for a project and discuss ideas. That’s it, in my book. Any other information can be disseminated through email or even better: an online project management program. When you have companies that have downsized due to the poor economy, the last thing overtasked employees need is a meeting full of people hashing out half-baked thoughts. Plan for meetings with clear and concise action items and it will run much more smoothly.

    Did I say I’m not a big fan of meetings? :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Liliana-Panic/611370758 Liliana Panic

    I’ve heard plenty of complaints in my life but no one ever complained they didn’t have enough meetings to attend.
    Not to bore you with 101 advice now how to reduce this pain, I’ll just say one thing. It could be the sign of poor organization (especially if you spend more than 25 % of your time in mtgs. and you are not a member of BOD), communication channels, or even one job split into too many. I have an e-book that covers this and it is free on my blog if anyone cares to know more. Enjoy.

    • http://www.HabitofThought.com Mary Anne Shew

      You raise a great point. Too many meetings are a symptom of organizational issues, which ultimately point to leadership problems. Lack of a cohesive vision and direction can cause people to run around in circles and be unfairly blamed for ineffectiveness.

    • http://www.HabitofThought.com Mary Anne Shew

      You raise a great point. Too many meetings are a symptom of organizational issues, which ultimately point to leadership problems. Lack of a cohesive vision and direction can cause people to run around in circles and be unfairly blamed for ineffectiveness.

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  • http://www.HabitofThought.com Mary Anne Shew

    As a followup to a previous comment I made, I just stumbled across a great book: “Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes, & Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity” by David Sibbet. (It’s available via Amazon.)The previous book I recommended, Mining Group Gold, helps with planning the meeting and defining what you want to get out of it, though it’s not as visually pretty and engaging as this one is. This one shows you how to use visualization and graphics to tap energy, intelligence, and creativity. The book itself is a great example. Artistic talent not required!

  • http://www.HabitofThought.com Mary Anne Shew

    As a followup to a previous comment I made, I just stumbled across a great book: “Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes, & Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity” by David Sibbet. (It’s available via Amazon.)The previous book I recommended, Mining Group Gold, helps with planning the meeting and defining what you want to get out of it, though it’s not as visually pretty and engaging as this one is. This one shows you how to use visualization and graphics to tap energy, intelligence, and creativity. The book itself is a great example. Artistic talent not required!

  • http://www.blackfridayplanet.com/ William Hushburn

    It has always been set that every Saturday is our PDCA meeting. It is exhausting since there are no exact time to until when the meeting will end. It’ll clog up all my nerves and I will end up black after each meeting. A good way to cope up with this kind of issue is that you must take notes every time. In that way, you can avoid stressing yourself by thinking about howl lengthy the meeting is.

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