What to do to when your meetings get increasingly boring and unproductive

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I often hear this complaint, “that meeting was a total waste of time!” Do you feel this way about your meetings? Do you often wish you could quickly get out and get on with your “real” work? Or you may have accepted the fact that this is unavoidable, you have some good days and some bad days.

My advice is – don’t accept this as a norm.  If you see yourself as a productive, value-adding professional, why should you accept poorly run meetings that are energy-zapping and time-wasting?

“Research suggests that of the 23 hours that executives spend in meetings each week, on average, eight are unproductive”

In one interesting article published by Harvard Business Review, it wrote: “research suggests that of the 23 hours that executives spend in meetings each week, on average, eight are unproductive, and some 90% of people report daydreaming in meetings, and 73% admit that they use meeting time to do other work.”

Wow 90%, that’s a significant percentage! The article added that “one recent study found that the effects of a bad meeting can linger for hours in the form of attendee grousing and complaining—a phenomenon dubbed “meeting recovery syndrome.” If you have sat down and complained to another colleague after an unproductive meeting, you’re experiencing the so-called “meeting recovery syndrome.”

So, what can you do to make your meetings better, more engaging and more productive? Especially those regularly scheduled ones when everyone seems to be going through the motion; busy rehearsing their own slides silently in their heads instead of listening, fiddling with their smartphones, and sitting almost at the same spot, week in and week out?

I wrote this article because of a conversation with a client last December. My client let’s call him Mr K recently asked me how to “re-shape” his meetings in the new year. He is the MD of an MNC with over 1,000 employees. He shared with me that he had intentionally cut down internal meetings in 2019 by 50% to increase productivity.

Having sat in his meetings a few times, I knew that he is outstanding in holding productive meetings (he set clear ground rules, objectives and sticks to a schedule), so I was surprised on this drastic move.

He shared his rationale:

  • His meetings were getting predictable where everyone just took turns to present. He would have preferred to read the PPT deck in his own time.
  • The same people were vocal during meetings. He would rather engage them separately to prevent them from dominating the conversations.
  • Save money as time is money. Having a finance background, he had mentally calculated the cost of putting so many people in the room for two hours.

My client thought it would be a smart move to cut down on the number of meetings and was confident his teams would welcome it with open arms. He was right, but unfortunately, he also noticed the side effects; some teams were beginning to work in a silo, resulting in lesser team collaboration. My client wanted ideas on an “improved version” of running his 2-hour meetings.

As a consultant, trainer, facilitator and coach, I always relish the challenge of solving problems. I thought long and hard on my client’s objective and shared with him ten ideas, some simple ones and some radical ones.

Here’s a snippet on my three simple ideas and one radical one:

Simple Ideas

1. Eliminate agenda items in meetings that do not need decision-making

Items that are purely information sharing can be sent via email or any other relevant format. State this objective clearly to all meeting attendees to prevent meetings from getting derailed or prolonged unnecessarily. Caveat – This idea is only suitable for those regularly scheduled meetings; irregular meetings would benefit from information-sharing.

2. Quick reflection at the end of the meeting

Before closing the meeting, do a quick reflection if a decision has been made clear on each agenda item to assess if the meeting time is used wisely. If not, continue with a separate meeting with the relevant person/team.

3. Recap with after-meeting minutes

To ensure everyone is on the same page after attending a meeting, distribute after-meeting minutes within 24 hours to capture critical points raised and decisions made, motions and voting results if votes taken, responsibilities assigned, tasks delegated, and any agreed deadlines.

Radical Idea

A facilitated 2-hour (120-min) meeting that is highly experiential. Here are the 8 steps:

  1. Keep the attendee numbers to max 10 (The late Steve Jobs believed in single-digit).
  2. Have each meeting attendee find one partner from another team, department or division (including the chairperson). Group attendees in pairs, if not possible, group in threes but a less preferred method.
  3. Each paired group to share the key points of their meeting content and inputs/decisions they seek. Each person has 7 minutes to share and capture feedback in their group. Meeting attendees can use their slide deck or any materials they have prepared.
  4. Each pair to split up and rotate to share with a different partner.
  5. Ensure that every meeting attendee has a chance to share with everyone in the room (e.g. ten meeting attendees = five groups = five rounds x 14mins = 70 mins)
  6. Each attendee has 3 mins to present after synthesising inputs/decisions/actions from the group sharing (10 x 3 mins = 30mins)
  7. Chairperson to recap, reflect and close the meeting (20mins)
  8. Distribute after-meeting minutes within 24 hours

Now you may be wondering if the radical idea worked. It’s a learning process. For the first run, we learned that if meeting attendees were not well prepared with their sharing content, the conversation ended up with a one-way conversation, with some people giving heavy “content-download.”

However, we also noticed that even though some groups needed less time than what was given, they got to chat on topics “outside of agenda” and built better rapport. All in all, my client was pleased with the energy level, the honing of listening skills, and the level of engagement (nobody gets to fiddle with their mobile devices for one). I was the facilitator for the first meeting to demonstrate the facilitation process.

For the second round, my client took over as the facilitator. The meeting attendees came well prepared and the willingness to share openly. The downside (if you would call it a downside) was the meeting time overran due to over-enthusiasm. My client realised he needed to be firm with the time allocated. I cautioned him to stay focused and not turned it into a team bonding session! We are going into the third round soon, and results are promising. Our next target is reducing the meeting from two hours to one hour.

With careful design, meetings can be effective, productive and energising.

I believe that with careful design, meetings can be effective, productive and energising. After all, we spend so much time in meetings, why do we torture ourselves? You just have to take the steps (and courage) to change them. If you can’t, please forward this article who those who can. As the saying goes “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

What are your ideas to eliminate unproductive meetings in 2020? Love to hear your thoughts, email me at catherine@broc.com.sg, and it would be my pleasure to learn from you.

“The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

Written by Catherine Chai – Principal Consultant, Trainer & Facilitator

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