Meeting overload

Shopify’s recent announcement about canceling, banning, and restricting meetings is the wrong solution to a huge problem. It’s throwing a deflated pool toy to someone who’s drowning.

Meetings can energize or enervate. When meetings are effectively run, they create that elusive synergy to dramatically boost a team’s effectiveness. Research clearly shows that when run effectively, groups make better decisions than individuals do. Effective meetings involve and engage participants in problem-solving and planning.

But waaayyy too many meetings waste time and zap energy. They reduce the collective IQ (and EQ) of a group of very bright and effective individuals to a group of dim wits. More fodder for cynical Dilbert cartoons.

Meeting research shows that executive time spent in meetings has increased from 10 hours a week to nearly 23 hours over the past fifty years. This reflects the collaborative approaches of today’s more complex world and matrixed organizations. In “Stop the Meeting Madness,” a survey of 182 managers across a range of industries, 65% reported “meetings keep them from completing their own work,” and 71% said, “meetings are unproductive and inefficient.”

Shopify seems to be confusing meeting quantity with quality. Reducing or restricting the number of meetings doesn’t improve the effectiveness of meetings. It will likely make them worse. As highly restricted and poorly run meetings with distracted participants sputter to a close, team leaders often leave groups hanging. Consensus, commitment, and even action are left in a state of suspended animation. Team members wander out, unclear what’s to happen next.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Why Your Meetings Stink — And What to Do About It,” Steven Rogelberg, professor and author of a book on the science of meetings, reports that “8 out of the average 23 hours a week executives spend in meetings are unproductive.” That’s a day a week wasted!

It gets worse. Rogelberg reports, “My research suggests that only around 50% of meeting time is effective, well used, and engaging — and these effectiveness numbers drop even lower when it comes to remote meetings.”

Meeting Misery or Mastery Depends on the Leader

Raise your hand if you’re an above-average driver. According to the American Automobile Association, 73% of drivers feel they’re better than average — a statistical impossibility.

How’s your meeting leadership? You likely feel that many meetings you attend suck. That’s because…many do. Too often meetings suck time and energy out of everyone. And most meeting leaders are blissfully ignorant about how wasteful attendees feel their meetings are. How do you know what attendees think of your meetings?

Are you contributing to meeting madness? Rogelberg reports a survey of managers showed they feel that 79% of the meetings they drive are extremely or very productive. But they report that just over half the meetings they attended as passengers are as effective as their own. So many managers are driving their meeting attendees crazy with mediocre meetings while believing, “I am not the problem; they are.”

Here’s a big clue about what’s going on: Rogelberg cites research showing that “the attendees who are the most active are the ones who feel that meetings are the most effective and satisfying. And who typically talks the most? The leader.”

Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman report in their book, “Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution,” “One of the most frequent written complaints people make about their bosses in our 360-degree assessments zeros in on the quality of their meetings…our research on productivity improvement shows high correlation of improved productivity with the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings.”

I continue to be astounded and mystified why so many people accept low-quality, poorly run, time-sucking meetings as if it’s an unavoidable price of doing business. The only explanation seems to be ignorance — of their own meeting leadership effectiveness and that meetings can be soooo MUCH better. Rogelberg points out that 75% of managers responding to a survey said they had no training in how to run a meeting. So, they don’t know what they don’t know about meeting effectiveness.

Meeting Effectiveness Checklist

Meetings showcase the leader’s effectiveness. I’ve been beating the meeting drum so long my arm’s getting sore. Effective meeting leaders are strong facilitators.

When the meeting leader is the boss, there’s a delicate balancing act between facilitating the group discussion and unwittingly issuing management directives. If, for example, the boss presents his or her opinions early in the discussion, healthy debate is often curtailed, options are narrowed, “moose-on-the-table” (touchy issues) will be avoided, participants who disagree will sit on their hands, and the boss’s view will prevail.

Here’s a summary of best practices for highly effective virtual or in-person meetings:

  1. Clear agendas with timeframes, objectives, and desired outcomes for each agenda item. Check in to add/delete agenda items before the meeting starts.
  2. Ground rules everyone agrees to and follows.
  3. Conflict management fostering healthy debates and reducing dysfunctional arguments or participants shutting down.
  4. Clarity about whether decisions/actions for each agenda item will be by command, consultation, or consensus.
  5. Dealing constructively with dysfunctional team behaviors.
  6. Clear action plans and next steps for each agenda item.
  7. Documentation and communication follow-through for meeting attendees and those who didn’t attend but are involved in next steps and action plans.
  8. Skilled leaders that know how to keep things on track and focused.
  9. An atmosphere of openness and trust.
  10. Regular evaluations of meeting effectiveness.

How’s your meeting leadership? Most meeting leaders are blissfully ignorant about how wasteful attendees feel their meetings are. How do you know what attendees think of your meetings?