Abolish time-wasting meetings

Abolish time-wasting meetings

This article was first published in Business Times on 17 January 2020

Leading Through Disruption – Abolish time-wasting meetings

by John Bittleston, Founder Mentor, Terrific Mentors International

Do you know how many meetings are held by your reports? Do you know how much time they take up? Are you aware of the purposes of such meetings? Does anyone tell you what they feel about the meetings they have to attend? Have you done an audit of a sample of the meetings held in your organisation or department? Do you have any measure of effectiveness for meetings? Have you examined the meetings you yourself call? What has that told you about time used, effectiveness and productivity of those meetings? Has anyone told you – perhaps in a moment of pre-alcohol-poisoning – that so many meetings are an effective use of time and money?

Let’s take the answer as a collective ‘No’

Let’s further assume that you would like to correct the situation. There is one big reason why you don’t. You want to be a modern manager, to let people run themselves the way they want, to operate independently, be responsible for themselves and not have you as their Nanny. Fair enough, but you still have to manage them. It’s your job. You can only do that by changing the culture of the business. Daunting task? Maybe, but that certainly is your job.
In fact, the culture of a business, a company, a section or a department is at the heart of management. Get it right and prosperity follows. Culture is behavior first and trust second. To change the culture of a business you must change its behaviours. Only when you have successfully done that can you expect trust to improve. Only then can you claim to have changed the culture of the business. Just as an individual has to reform bad habits in order to develop, so a business must regularly root out waste and ritual if it is to succeed. Excessive – and long – meetings describe a culture of both of these.

Here’s how to deal with them

Get the facts. To do this you will need a very intelligent, reasonably mature, highly diplomatic person for some time – maybe six months or more. Don’t have such a person spare? Then hire one in as a consultant. Yes, it will take some of your time to interview and select such a character. You are going to save your business, this is not the time to be idiotically stingy.
You will require this person (the ‘Meeting Maestro’) to collect data from your reports. S/he will do it with your authority. Initially they will collect factual data – how many meetings, lasting how long, held when, what agendas, what minutes, who attended, what decisions were made and what was the potential value / cost of them to the business, what action resulted (and didn’t), who were the people really concerned with that action. Your Meeting Maestro must get to know and charm the people who must supply the data. There may be a record of meetings held in formal meeting rooms. Getting smaller meetings data will be more difficult. Hence the diplomatic need.

Top person’s involvement
When introducing this project to your staff – in person – you must make it clear that you are not seeking to punish or prevent, merely finding out how best you can help your subordinates organise their time more fruitfully. Use the excuse that you want to provide proper digital equipment for everyone plus reducing the pressure on the meeting rooms and making them more efficiently used. How you introduce this project and how clearly it is seen that you are quietly determined that it shall work will largely decide if it succeeds or not. The boss’s handling of the early stage of this is critical.
This first stage data collection is never going to be 100% perfect. The Meeting Maestro will have a view about the accuracy of it, who is lying, if anyone, and what data is not being collected that might improve the survey. Be flexible. If it looks as though there is an area of information that would make the results more meaningful, include it. If people are simply not willing to talk, find out why. Threats by a senior person trying to hide information to a junior person should be treated very seriously.

Making the findings work

Your Meeting Maestro should prepare a presentation of the findings of the work and show it to all senior managers. Tell them you are going to ask them questions about how to change the situation to have fewer, shorter meetings, involving a smaller number of people. Run a discussion day for managers to consider how the existing meetings can be improved. This day will include some training in the use of small, informal meetings with notes of their decisions, rather than formal agenda-based and minuted meetings.
The value of such mini-meetings cannot be overstated. When building Cerebos Pacific Ltd I asked my secretary to lock me out of my office between 9 and 5 on Mondays to Thursdays. I was thus forced to visit other colleagues in their offices. This gave rise to the question “What’s going on that really matters?” Over a coffee, and often with another one or two colleagues, we would discuss ‘the matters that mattered’. We usually came to swift conclusions which, because of the nature of the meetings, were swiftly executed.

One hundred figures is enough

Ask all managers who receive data to write down the one hundred figures they would want if they were limited to that number. Say that they could always look behind the figures in their ‘hundred’ list. Explain that they will not be limited to this number. It is just an exercise to see how well people identify the key operating figures they need. The purpose of this part of the exercise is to see how clearly your managers define what they need to know. It is a major factor in deciding how many meetings they need to hold to be properly informed. It will also tell you which of our managers need some coaching in information gathering and use.
When your Meeting Maestro has analysed the data s/he collected about your meetings culture, let them draw up a list of actions you can take to ensure the cultural change needed. This will include restricting the use of meeting rooms, limiting the length of meetings, ensuring that copies of minutes are sent to the CEO for him / her to spot-check who is adjusting to the new regime and who is not.

Benefits way beyond meetings

Changing the culture of a business is never easy. Meetings are the particular prerogative of Section Heads and Departmental Managers. Restricting them and introducing a less formal, less ponderous way of working will take time. The rewards of making this particular change extend far beyond meetings. They will reach into every aspect of the management of the business.
They will have the effect of speeding up thinking, doing and achieving.
Every business can benefit from that.