Way back in 1976, the British actor John Cleese starred in a short comedy training film called Meetings, Bloody Meetings. (He also appears in an updated version released in 2012.)
In the original, he plays the part of a disorganized business manager who calls together some colleagues for a meeting. The film provides an entertaining look at the waste of time and effort that results when meetings are poorly planned and organized.
It’s worth finding on YouTube.
The world has moved on. Unfortunately, many meetings haven’t.
Running a business in the mid-1970s was, in many ways, quite different than today. Managers had to contend with widespread industrial unrest, many businesses were reduced to a three-day working week and communication was slow and clumsy by today’s standards.
Meetings were the preferred method for sharing views and keeping key people informed. Emails and the internet were still years away.
The way some organizations manage their meetings, you’d think nothing had changed.
Bring your meetings into the 21st century
Businesses are much leaner than they were decades ago. Everyone has less time to indulge in the luxury of sitting around shooting the breeze with colleagues. Here’s how you can streamline your meetings so that they chew up less time and reduce the frustration of everyone who’s there:
- Who to invite.
Leave out anyone whose attendance isn’t essential. Jeff Bezos, the boss of Amazon, has what he calls ‘the two-pizza rule’. It means if you can’t feed everyone in the meeting with two pizzas, you have too many people.
According to a research study, the ideal number is between five and nine. With fewer than five, you might struggle to gain traction. More than nine and there’s a risk that not everyone will have an opportunity to contribute. Or worse, several small discussions may break out and cause confusion.
- What to prepare.
It should be an ironclad rule that you never call a formal meeting without an agenda, distributed to everyone at least 24 hours before the time. (Except in an emergency, of course.)
The agenda should show who is attending, where the meeting is being held and the start and finish times.
Attendees must bring with them clear opinions and recommendations regarding the matters to be considered. A formal meeting is not a forum for testing ideas but for managers to share the process of decision making.
- Record all decisions taken.
The easiest way is for the leader of the meeting to make notes and have them typed and distributed afterwards.
- No refreshments.
People can bring their own drinks but, unless there’s an important client present, leave the pizzas for later. (Sorry Jeff.) And definitely no tea and biscuits please.
- No cell phones, tablets or laptops.
Unless you need equipment to demonstrate something or make a presentation to the meeting, all personal electronics must be switched off and kept in your pocket or bag. There’s nothing more irritating when addressing a group than to see them checking their mails and texts.
- Focus, focus, focus.
The leader’s primary task is to keep all discussions brief and on track. Anyone who rambles or wanders off the point should be brought into line quickly, or people will begin to fidget and lose concentration.
- Please release me.
If you’ve made a useful contribution to the early part of the agenda, but don’t have the expertise to engage in the upcoming topics you can ask to be excused. Simply say something like: “I do apologize, this is not an area where I have any experience or strong views. Would you mind if I went back to work on my project?”
Don’t undervalue informal meetings
These are the brief chats you have will colleagues over coffee, in the corridor or while working together. They don’t carry the weight of formal meetings, but they’re useful for bouncing an idea around or asking for advice.
Leaders, especially, find that if they practice what’s known as ‘management by walking around’ (and talking to people) they’ll pick up more useful information than in half a day’s worth of formal discussion.
At the end of a long working day, nobody ever wishes they’d spent more time in meetings.