Meetings can be the bane of corporate life. Senior leaders and managers typically spend more than half their time in meetings. In one survey, a whopping 85 percent of executives said they were dissatisfied with the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings at their companies.
Yet meetings are essential to effective decision making and execution and thus to business results. The companies that are best at decisions have learned to manage meetings as carefully as they manage any other part of their businesses. It’s a three-step program:
1. Zero-base your meetings
Some meetings focus on decisions. Others don’t, and you can get rid of them. The key—the scalpel that lets you separate the important from the unimportant—is a good understanding of your group’s critical decisions. The list should include both big one-off decisions, such as major investments, and more-routine decisions that add up to significant value over time. If a meeting doesn’t bear on one of these decisions, give it the ax.
Zero-basing your meetings in this fashion lets you phase out all the working groups that have outlived their usefulness. A well-known European retailer, for example, reorganized its governance system, subsuming many of its numerous committees into a single program board and clarifying the roles of each surviving committee. The reorganization eliminated nearly 70 percent of committees and many unnecessary meetings.
2. Make meetings effective
The fact that a meeting is supposed to focus on a key decision doesn’t mean that it will. A major natural-resources company, for example, noticed that its meetings were often going off track. So the company developed several tools to keep everyone attentive to the matters at hand:
• Leaders began insisting on a clear purpose for every meeting.
• They established exacting requirements for meeting preparation, including templates, standardized pre-read protocols and deadlines.
• They designed each meeting’s agenda around what they wanted to accomplish.
• They also changed the conduct of the meeting, with key decisions highlighted on the agenda and a recap summarizing the points reached by the group.
Another useful tool is a formal decision log. By capturing their group’s actions in such a log, executives of a large entertainment company were able to increase the pace of decisions significantly and dramatically improve the group’s follow-through and execution.
3. Ensure that the right people—and only the right people—attend
At some companies, many people make a point of attending all the meetings they can, just so they feel that they are in the loop. (We call them “business tourists.”) But the only people who should attend a meeting are those with a role in the decisions at hand.
Linking attendance to decision roles enables companies to confront a chief cause of meeting proliferation and ineffectiveness: reopening decisions. That was a problem at Intel’s Embedded and Communications Group (ECG) where, according to then general manager Doug Davis, “someone who hadn’t been involved [in a decision] early on would bring in a new piece of data, and we’d go back and revisit it.” Once ECG clarified decision roles, decisions were more likely to stick.
Because meetings are so common, many people rely on them to organize their worklives. They gauge their relative status by the number of invitations they get. So not everyone will be happy if companies reduce the number of meetings and invitees.
To smooth the transition, it helps to convey the idea that everybody will soon be attending fewer meetings—and that the remaining meetings will be more productive than in the past. Leaders should attend only those meetings where they play a decision role. They should push back when someone tries to reopen a decision. Every meeting leader can adopt new techniques, such as a moment at the beginning asking, “Does everyone have to be here?” Peers and superiors can recognize and praise such behaviors.
Like other organizational changes, reining in meetings can be difficult at first. But you should soon find that your time is freed up, that your remaining meetings are far more productive than before, and that your decisions are better and faster.