Are meetings driving you mad?
Published: April 07, 2021

As a species, we need to communicate. It helps us build friendships and relationships, trade, share news and information. It’s vital to our development. But in the business world meetings can become like Japanese Knotweed, infiltrating every corner of our operations, eating into busy lives, taking up precious time, sometimes adding confusion and doubt when what we really seek is clarity.

I once worked at a company where people often said the day’s work started at 6pm. Why so late, you ask? Because the rest of the day was jam-packed with meetings. No one could get any real work done because meetings were getting in the way.

You may be a business where meetings aren’t an issue, in which case you can stop reading now, make yourself a coffee and go back to work. But if you feel there are too many of them or that they aren’t adding value, here are some questions you can ask yourself to regain control of your working life.

Is the meeting important?

Take a long hard look at your calendar, and ask – how many of these meetings are vital to both the running and success of my company? Who asked for the meeting? Will my business continue to function successfully without it? What purpose does it serve?

I’ve worked in places where the mantra is – if in doubt have a meeting, as if the meeting itself is part of the business’s core purpose. A meeting needs to be essential. If you’re going to gather a group of bright, well-paid people together, it had better be worth it. My motto would be – if in doubt, leave it out.

Does it have clear goals?

Like everything in business, you need a proposition. What is the purpose of the meeting? Over the years I’ve sat in probably hundreds of meetings where I’ve thought – what on earth are we all doing here? In the absence of a clear brief, waffle creeps in. And some people love to talk. And talk. And talk. Which is nice for them. But not so nice for those on the receiving end.

The best meetings are when everyone there knows exactly why they’ve been invited. A meeting request should come with a clear brief as to what its purpose is. The meeting should end with clear action points and timelines. If there is more than one person, it needs to be chaired properly. Without clear goals, meetings are like herding cats, time-consuming, and ultimately futile.

Does it need to be that long?

They say we spend a third of our lives sleeping. I reckon another third is spent in meetings (and perhaps, also sleeping). As a rule, a meeting will expand to fit the time allocated to it. But how long is long enough, you ask? Good question. I refer you back to “clear goals”. If everyone arrives at the meeting well briefed and well prepared, the meeting shouldn’t drag on like a wet Bank Holiday. It should be short, sharp, effective.

I heard of a boss once who used to have an egg-timer in his office. He thought that no meeting should last longer than three minutes. A bit extreme. But I have some sympathy.

But what if you run out of time? Feel free to diary another meeting. But ensure that the purpose and goals are crystal clear. And if you have to cancel or postpone a meeting, or you’re running late, it’s nice to tell the people you’ve invited. There are few things more infuriating than sitting there, like a lemon, waiting for the meeting that isn’t going to happen.

Do brainstorms count?

No, brainstorms don’t count. If you want fresh concepts, brief your best people to come up with them. A meeting is a place to discuss ideas, not find them.

Do there need to be so many people?

If the purpose of the meeting is to inform staff or stakeholders about some news or development, then fill your screen with faces. But if the purpose of the meeting is to discuss an important issue, I’d argue a small core of key individuals is far better than an army of people who’ve joined the meeting because they simply have an hour to kill.

You want your salespeople to be selling, your planners to be planning, your marketing people to be marketing. They won’t be doing much for your bottom line stuck in internal meetings all day.

Is there another way?

Yes.

Face to face meetings isn’t the only way to solve business issues and impart information. There’s the good old email.

But, I hear you say, I get far too many emails to communicate that way. But could it be that your email mountain is building because of all the meetings you’re in? Cut the number of meetings and it will free you up to deal with emails, and solve problems with written words, rather than spoken ones.

I’m a huge fan of communicating by writing. It means you have to be disciplined. You have to get your information across in a clear, pithy way. Your words can be saved and looked at again. You are accountable.

I know many online meetings are now recorded, but I can count on the fingers of one mitten the number of recorded meetings I’ve sat and watched. In that time, I’ve probably looked at hundreds of emails.

Meetings aren’t about to disappear any time soon. You probably have one coming up in a few minutes. But I think you owe it to yourself and your business, to take a look at them once in a while and ask if they’re working for you? Are they achieving what they’re meant to achieve, or have they become an obstacle to the very thing you’re trying to do, namely increase the value of your business.

As a little exercise over the coming weeks, why not score your meetings out of 10 for efficiency and effectiveness. If they’re all getting ten out of ten, good job. But if they’re getting low scores, it could be time for a fresh approach.

This meeting between your brain and my words took 3 minutes 45 seconds. Hopefully, it was time well spent.

Malcolm Duffy is Creative Director of BGI.