The greatest wastage in companies
Responses given to survey forms sent out as a follow-up to my online course show that the average manager in a large company spends more than 11 hours at meetings per week and more than 20 hours per week in extreme cases. Judging on the basis of data in my possession, I can safely assume that depending on position, on average 10-50% of wages paid by companies go towards covering the cost of meetings.
Frequently, the time spent this way is extremely frustrating, for the whole event is no more than a smokescreen designed to cover the fact that no work is actually being performed, and also an ideal mechanism for diluting responsibility between many people.
How to cope with inefficient meetings
We have learned to tolerate inefficient meetings by doing something else during their course, somehow staving off the growing frustration, but the truth is that we must act ourselves. Obviously, we could say “somebody should do something about this” and simply wait.
Since the scale of wastage is so enormous, we have to start asking uncomfortable questions and confronting problems as they arise; hopefully, this will lead us to the heart of the matter. The cost of tolerating inefficient meetings is just too large, especially as they tend to generate successive meetings, ultimately focusing on the life of a company on an endless cycle of gatherings and assemblies.
Below I have put together 8 ways of coping with this cancer which eats away at many organizations:
1. Count the cost of a meeting
Meetings are a very expensive way of spending time with every company. If 10 full-time managers who earn 10,000 PLN gross (approximately 6,900 PLN net) are taken away for a period of 2 hours, the cost of the assembly to the employer will be well in excess of 1,300 PLN.
But if these 1,300 Polish zlotys were lying on the table during the meeting, making everyone aware exactly how much money the company is spending on it, would its course be as per usual?
2. Determine clear-cut objectives for a meeting – or call if off
I continue to be amazed by how many meetings are organized either without any objective or in such a way that the objective is simply unattainable.
Imagine a meeting being held with the objective of “discussing the latest strategy”. How will you be able to know whether or not it was a success? And how often do you see that the majority of those invited remain silent, with only a few having anything to say? If the goal was to “discuss”, then indeed the meeting must have been a success, for the topic was “discussed”; but were any arrangements made?
All gatherings and assemblies that have among their objectives the words “discuss”, “share”, “inform”, “check”, “think through” or “consider” are usually smoke screens that only serve to dilute responsibility! Why cannot the goal be to jointly take a decision and assume responsibility for it?
You can verify the quality of the objective of a meeting by asking yourself the following question: “How am I to know whether the meeting was indeed successful?”
An objective forces those invited to prepare adequately and display focus during the meeting. I entreat you – no, I provoke you not to go to meetings that have no goal, because if that is the case then whether you go or not is indeed immaterial: you cannot assist in the attainment of something that does not exist!
3. Select the appropriate form, or forgo a meeting if possible
Is the meeting at all necessary? Is it the best way of achieving the set objective? Or should one person simply take a decision and inform the rest?
Unfortunately, many companies consider it the done thing to organize meetings whenever an arrangement has to be made. The advantage of this approach is twofold: firstly, they can say that a decision was taken jointly – in the spirit of “togetherness”, while secondly, no single person will be accountable if the effects of the decision turn out to be catastrophic. This simple method allows many to weasel out – elegantly, by feigning teamwork – of responsibility for their decisions.
But if we must meet (even though, as we have just counted, this is very costly), what form of an assembly will be the most effective? Should we meet face to face, using a video link, or perhaps have a telephone conference?
Let us assume that in the current reality of office work and with the sheer number of meetings, more than one half of those participating in a teleconference will be doing something else in its course – answering e-mails, for example, or creating new content. How can such a meeting be at all effective?
4. Make sure that all the necessary participants are present and get rid of the rest
The selection of those who are to participate in a meeting is of key importance. Usually, the smaller the number, the less time it takes to agree on things. If there are 3 people, we have 3 different accounts one-on-one, but if the number increases to 5, we have 10; for 8, we have 36, while for a group of 20 – 190!
Obviously, we have to ensure the participation of all the decision-makers and those who possess critical information – if they’re not present, we won’t be able to achieve the objective. The curse of many companies, however, is that too many people are brought in, as this invites the dilution of responsibility.
So, ask all those who are indispensable for the attainment of the set goal, making every effort to ensure that their number is as small as possible.
5. Provide the necessary information
If the objective of the meeting is specific and consists in taking a decision and making a joint commitment, people will prepare themselves completely differently than usual and devote considerably more attention.
Let us allow the invited participants to properly prepare for and then participate in the meeting by sending them key data a few days beforehand. Let everyone look through and analyze these materials in their own good time.
All the information required by the participants to achieve the objective should be sent to them before the meeting or along with the invitation – as a bare minimum, you must provide at least the agenda.
6. Determine rules, stick to the agenda, and make sure the atmosphere is and stays friendly
I’ve frequently observed that when people feel that certain rules will help improve the efficiency of a meeting, they will be more ready to abide by them.
In the beginning, therefore, we should introduce clear and transparent rules, e.g. a ban on using cell phones and computers, and also a clear division of time and roles during the meeting. Sometimes it is worth stating that if someone feels unable to contribute to a meeting or will not benefit from participating, he or she should leave. For me, this shows respect both towards others and one’s own work.
More importantly, we should not be concerned solely with rules and strict discipline as such, but rather with providing a structure which will allow us to achieve the objective of our gathering painlessly and efficiently.
During the meeting you should stick to the agenda with perseverance, but also strive to ensure a friendly atmosphere – we’re not in the army and so we don’t have to account for every minute; rather, participants should be made to feel that they’re on a constructive path towards a goal that will indeed be attained.
7. Keep notes and send them round after the meeting
Two days after a meeting, participants will remember neither its course nor the arrangements made. For this reason, it is very important to designate a person who will be responsible for keeping notes during the gathering. Such a person (and it can also be you) should sum up the most important information provided during the meeting and the decisions taken in a few bullet points.
After the meeting you can send this memo round to all of the participants – later, they can quickly return to it and recreate what exactly was talked about.
8. Develop an action plan
The meeting should end with the elaboration of a clear plan: what is to be done, who will do it, and within what time. We have a specific objective to accomplish, and thus we have provided information, discussed it, and taken a decision. After the meeting, you will need to make sure that the actions agreed upon will indeed be performed.
It is very important for the people assigned to individual tasks to assume responsibility for their execution. Preferably, these duties should immediately be added to the task management tool so as to ensure that their progress can be traced.
We do not want to be unfriendly.
And we do not want people to feel bad.
Thus, we frequently resign ourselves to the dilution of responsibility.
We agree to the use of smoke screens which cover up the fact that we’re not working.
And we wait until someone reacts and does something with the problem.
In this way unsuccessful meetings generate further meetings, and so on and so forth; everything keeps rolling along.
But we simply must act – inefficient meetings are one of the largest sources of wastages in many companies. If you’re invited to a meeting that seems pointless, ask its organizer what he or she specifically wants to achieve. But if he cannot provide you with a goal, just refuse to participate.
And conversely – if you yourself are considering organizing a meeting for which you have set a clear-cut objective, try to determine whether a meeting is indeed the best way of achieving it; in other words, try to verify whether it’s not going to be a smokescreen or a dilution of responsibility.
If you still think that it’s worth the effort, send the key information to participants, making sure that the form of the gathering is optimal (if it is to be held remotely, opt for a video connection!) and that all the necessary people – and no-one inessential – have been invited.
During the meeting observe rules, stick to the agenda and try to create a friendly atmosphere. And don’t forget to take notes – which after the meeting you should send round to all the participants. Follow up by verifying that specific tasks have been written down in the appropriate job lists.
I wish you success in your struggle with the cancer of inefficient and frustrating meetings which eats so many companies away from the inside!