Meetings are a feature of most modern workplaces, an activity that virtually all workers are subjected to at one time or the other. Therefore, it is well worth our time to consider whether or not meetings contribute positively to productivity.
If managed properly, a meeting can be a great opportunity for brainstorming, collective thinking and dissemination of information. If mismanaged, it can be an enormous waste of time and a drain on productivity.
So whether or not a meeting contributes to productivity depends very much on how it is managed.
Let us now turn our attention to how meetings can be mismanaged. The following are hallmarks of a badly managed meeting:
- Lacking focus
- Dominated by opinionated or assertive individuals
- Attended by too many people
- Goes on for too long
I will now take each of these issues and try to explain it in some detail. Let’s start with lack of focus.
Lack of focus
For a meeting to be successful, it needs to be focused on clear issues. If the attendees of a meeting are unaware of the agenda of a meeting, they will not prepare the appropriate material for it.
Worse, a meeting with no fixed agenda tends to go all over the place. If people don’t know what is to be discussed, they can go off on random tangents that are irrelevant to most other attendees.
So the first thing you need to do is have a clear agenda. However, even with the presence of a clear agenda, there are always going to be people who try to steer the discussion in an irrelevant direction. Thus, it is the responsibility of the meeting chairperson to gently but firmly steer the discussion back to relevant areas.
In order to avoid stifling creativity and missing important information, the meeting chairperson can add an item at the end of the agenda to discuss any issues that the attendees bring up.
If this approach is going to be used, it is very important that the chairperson clearly state that this item on the agenda will only be used for issues relevant to the topic being discussed in the meeting and that it will have a certain duration. This is important to avoid the meeting going on for an unnecessary period of time.
For example, a meeting to discuss development of the syllabus of an educational institution can have a miscellaneous agenda item at the end of the meeting where participants can bring up issues relevant to the topic that have not been addressed earlier in the agenda — discussing a new system for grading exams is acceptable, discussing the sporting activity of students isn’t.
Maintaining focus is very important, it avoids wasting time of attendees and makes the meeting relevant for everybody.
Domination by assertive people
There are a group of people who are by their very nature very assertive. This is usually a good thing in a leader, but can damage the dynamics of a meeting.
People who speak in loud voices and assertively may not necessary be the people with the best ideas. But by their very nature, they will dominate discussion in a meeting. This usually results in the less assertive attendees — usually the junior members — not participating in discussions. The situation is made worse when the meeting chairperson is himself/herself such a person.
People involved in such meetings tend to keep quiet so as not to antagonize the assertive party. They let it go since it is not worth it to engage in verbal debate with such people. This results in poor meetings.
The chairperson should make sure that all participants have the opportunity to voice their opinions (if they are relevant, of course). This creates a healthy environment and allows creative ideas to be aired without the fear that the assertive loud voiced person will dominate the discussion.
Too many attendees
This is related to the first issue I discussed, focus. But instead of referring to focus of topic, this point refers to focus of attendees. Not everybody needs to attend every meeting.
A meeting for coordinating the sales of a finished product does not require the attendance of the manufacturing team. Likewise, a meeting to discuss lab maintenance in a university does not need to involve all faculty members.
People who have no stake in a meeting are usually bored to death by them, and could have used their time more productively. Choose who needs to attend your meeting based on relevance of the meeting agenda to them.
I’ve seen too many meetings where everyone in the organization is invited when only a very small subset of attendees are affected by the subject matter of the meeting. This is a terrible idea, avoid it at all costs.
To take this to it’s logical conclusion, sometimes the number of people to invite to a meeting is zero. If all you are going to do in the meeting is announce something that could just as easily have been announced by email or slack or WhatsApp, don’t hold it.
It’s pointless and a waste of time, not only will the time spent in the meeting be wasted, but at the very least 20-30 mins before and after the meeting will also be wasted as attendees wind down and wind up their work. Save everybody the time and send an email to make your announcement.
Lasting too long
Most meetings last too long. If a meeting chairperson allows the meeting to go off on tangents, or too much time is wasted in non-work related interaction, the meeting will overrun its natural duration. This is unhelpful since time spent in a meeting is time spent away from productive work — keep your meetings short and sweet.
Discuss the important issues, reach consensus, then assign an actionable task to each team member to further the goals of the meeting. Then end the meeting.
Meetings are an important method of disseminating information, reaching important decisions and collaborating on work items. However, if they are mismanaged, they can be a terrible waste of time. Learning what makes meetings wasteful is an important first step towards getting meetings to work for you.