Don Rumsfeld’s 8 Rules For Successful Meetings

Here’s a question I have heard repeated for years — does anyone out there actually like meetings?

I ask because in the world of business we seem to spend a lot of time in meetings, yet just about everyone I know, and every survey I’ve ever seen, indicates that most people say they would rather endure a root canal than be forced to attend yet another meeting.

John Cleese, the great comedian of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame, once did a corporate training video (several of them, actually) titled Meetings, Bloody Meetings, and Cleese, in his wickedly humorous way, did a great job capturing the many things that drive all of us crazy from all the meetings we’re forced to attend.

Brain cells lost in bad meetings

I weighed in once about my feelings concerning meetings, and it bears repeating today because it is no less true now than when I wrote it years ago:

I can’t begin to tell you how many brain cells I’ve lost over my career attending senseless, wasteful, mind-numbing meetings. When I left one employer after more than 11 years on the job, I calculated that I had attended in excess of 11,000 meetings during my time there – and those were just the regularly scheduled ones that I could easily count. Add in special or unscheduled meetings, and I easily was up around 13,000 meetings in less than 12 years. Some were necessary, but many were futile and wasteful. I’d be surprised if more than 10 percent of them were truly productive.

I have a million stories about all those meetings that I have given so many brain cells for, but the one that sticks out most is when this brutish tyrant of a boss I was working for told me that the daily afternoon scheduling meeting I ran was TOO efficient and made TOO many decisions TOO early in the day. He took over running the meeting, and of course, he failed to make any real decisions on anything, procrastinating long into the evening and driving everyone crazy. His sterling decision-making abilities drove the company to “encourage” him to take “early retirement” a few years later.”

So, I don’t like meetings but I accept that they are a necessary evil — like paying taxes or getting “screened” by the airport TSA — that we must all deal with, like it or not.

And, that’s why I found these “rules” for successful meetings from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to be instructive and interesting.

Article Continues Below

8 tips for successful meetings

I don’t consider myself a Rumsfeld fan, but I do appreciate his expertise after attending what has to be an uncountable number of meetings during his many years working in the federal government. The Wall Street Journal recently published an excerpt from his new book that concerns meetings, and I was surprised that Rumsfeld quoted an observation from that great philosopher Dilbert, who said:

There is no specific agenda for this meeting. As usual, we’ll just make unrelated emotional statements about things which bother us.”

So, Rumsfeld knows meetings, and that’s why these eight (8) tips from him for having a successful one are good to think about.

  1. “The first consideration for meetings is whether to call one at all.” From Rumsfeld: “The default tendency in any bureaucracy, especially in government, is to substitute discussion for decision-making. If you … call a meeting, make sure you have something to communicate or need to learn in a group setting.”
  2. “When you decide to hold a meeting, it is important to avoid meandering sessions.”
  3. Pay close attention to who is invited and, for goodness’ sake, avoid making meetings so large that it feels you should have rented an amphitheater.”
  4. Start and end meetings on time.” From Rumsfeld: “Consider how much time is wasted by starting a meeting 15 minutes late. If 20 people are in attendance, that means that cumulatively you will have wasted five hours of time that could have been spent on something productive.”
  5. Encourage others to give their views, even if it may ruffle some feathers.” From Rumsfeld: “In meetings, endeavor to foster a culture in which people can comment on anything as long as their comments are relevant and constructive.”
  6. Come prepared. From Rumsfeld: “During meetings, I confess to being less than patient with folks who bring up irrelevant information or are ill-prepared. … There were occasions when I abruptly ended a meeting in progress and advised the participants that we would reconvene when everyone had had time to fully prepare.”
  7. When new ideas are broached in a meeting, there is often an instinctive and immediate opposition.” From Rumsfeld: “Meetings are a good place to discover whether an organization might be suffering from group think. If everyone in the room seems convinced of the brilliance of an idea, it may be a sign that the organization would benefit from more dissent and debate.”
  8. “When ending a meeting, make a practice of summarizing the salient points and take-aways.” From Rumsfeld: Make sure thatall participants know precisely what actions you intend to be taken and by whom.”

This isn’t rocket science, but it is good, common-sense wisdom about how to more effectively hold meetings. But like most things, we find that common sense isn’t all that common. Feel free to use this as a guide the next time you are asked to attend a meeting you know may get wildly out of hand. I bet you can use a few of these to get the gathering back on track.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.