Aug 16, 2013

Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” — John Kenneth Galbraith, economist.

As we can all attest, business meetings often waste valuable productive time and tend to last far longer than they should.

But until we learn to communicate telepathically, they will remain a necessary evil — not just as a means of exchanging ideas and information — but also as a way to build relationships with others.

That doesn’t mean we have to like them.

It’s all about the value of time

In fact, as economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell once quipped, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” Whether he meant it facetiously or not, there’s a grain of truth in Sowell’s statement, since someone who enjoys meetings might actually prolong them and anything else they laid their hands on.

Sowell himself has wasted little time in making the most of his life. Born African-American in the Deep South in 1930, he was raised by his extended family; his father died before his birth, and his mother was forced to give him up. After dropping out of high school at age 17 for financial and family reasons, he took a number of jobs before entering the Marine Corps in 1951 to fight in the Korean War.

Later he joined the civil service and took night classes at Howard University until he had enough credits to enter Harvard. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics in 1958, magna cum laude, he went on to acquire a master’s at Columbia and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1968.

Since then, he’s become known as one of the nation’s top economists, having been mentored by George Stigler and Milton Friedman. Sowell clearly understand the value of time: nothing damages productivity worse than wasted time. It’s no wonder meetings are described as the place, “Where minutes are taken and hours are wasted.”

How to make meetings more tolerable

You may never learn to enjoy meetings, but you can certainly make them more tolerable with these tips:

  1. Decide whether the meeting is even necessary. You may discover you can handle the issue with a few emails or a conference call. Why call a full meeting if you don’t need one?
  2. Get started on time. If someone doesn’t arrive on time, tough. Start when you agreed to, and don’t start over just because some individuals arrive late. People can check the minutes later to find out what you discussed before they arrived or get notes from a colleague.
  3. Use a facilitator. Have someone direct the meeting. Their role should include keeping the discussion on topic, acknowledging speakers, soliciting the opinions of the quieter attendees, and keeping a few people from dominating the meeting. They should also be in charge of ending the meeting on time.
  4. Change the venue. You don’t necessarily have to conduct your meeting in a corporate conference room. You may be able to achieve a much more relaxed, open atmosphere by holding your meeting over coffee at the local Starbucks. There’s no reason to remain tied to your office, and a venue change may make the attendees more creative.
  5. Provide food. People feel better when there’s something to munch on during a meeting. If some of the attendees are counting calories, provide a range of crudités as well as bagels and donuts.
  6. Make the agenda crystal clear. People need to know why they’re meeting and what you expect to accomplish as a result. Distribute the agenda and associated materials well in advance, at least 24 hours, preferably 72. Be clear at the end about what decisions were made, as well as who is responsible for what, by when
  7. Be very picky about who attends. If a meeting has little to do with a particular person, don’t invite them. Just “showing the flag” isn’t a good enough reason to have a person at a meeting. Send them a copy of the minutes if they need to have a general idea of what happened. It’s cheaper and simpler.
  8. Schedule breaks for long meetings. This will allow people to take care of biological needs and stretch their legs. A good rule of thumb is a 5-10 minute break per hour. In seminars, I never go longer than 90 minutes without getting people up to stretch.

The Bottom Line

You may have noticed that I didn’t suggest an icebreaker activity to increase the meeting’s “fun quotient.” Icebreakers take up valuable time, and routine meetings aren’t supposed to be fun — just necessary.

If you’re having an off-site retreat or something more atypical with “team building” as a goal, this might be appropriate. But while a business meeting may never be a blast, you can make them effective and efficient if you’ll implement the eight points I’ve suggested here.

What other protocols have you found to make meetings more efficient? What guidelines does your team follow to make them more effective?

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.