Meetings, Meetings, Meetings … and How to Improve Them
Our management columnist saves you time by searching for the best ideas to power your performance
Too much to do? Too little available time? Try cutting the time you allocate to routine tasks – notably meetings – in half. You’ll be surprised how many wasted moments you can eliminate.
Executive coach Peter Bregman got started on the path to the 30-minute meeting, now his preferred standard, when he trimmed his daily workout back to 30 minutes from an hour. His weight and conditioning actually improved, rather than deteriorated.
His intensity during physical activity is higher. Knowing his session has been curtailed, he eats better, not relying on the workout to keep slim, and integrates more movement into his day to compensate for the shorter time frame.
“If you have half the time to accomplish something, you become hyperaware of how you’re using that time. And hyperfocused during it,” he writes on Harvard Business Review blogs.
So he has reduced conference calls to 30 minutes and, similarly, sessions with coaching clients. They are less likely to skip the 30-minute chat than an hour and show up on time, as every minute counts. They are also better prepared – no time to waste – and more focused. They don’t wander between issues but concentrate on the key one. He is also sharper, less inclined to beat around the bush.
Try it yourself. Instead of defaulting to hour-long meetings as the office norm, aim for 30 minutes. Decide on the one thing that will make the biggest difference in the discussion and hit hard on that matter.
“Get started right on time, no matter who isn’t there, and be bold and disciplined at keeping the conversation on track. Let go of anything that is less critical. Make decisions quickly, even if they are imperfect. Getting traction on a single thing is far more useful than touching on many without forward momentum on any,” he writes.
Find what he calls the magic of the 30-minute meeting.
2. More on meetings
Here are some other ways to improve meetings:
– Stop holding meetings that don’t matter – notably the ones devoted primarily to sharing information. Consultant Jesse Lyn Stoner says sharing info can be accomplished better by project management software. Meetings that matter focus on conversation, with everyone engaged, ideas flowing as you tap into the collective wisdom.
– Tapping into collective wisdom and collective concerns can be difficult in town hall meetings, where the CEO or other senior executives update staff and supposedly answer tough questions, except none typically surface because everyone is too afraid of appearing a renegade. Bryant University Professor Michael Roberto tells of one company that uses interaction software to allow anonymous questions – and also permits those in the audience to “like” a question, signalling what’s top of mind for everyone.
– Beware of standing agendas for meetings, which can quickly become outdated or irrelevant, consultant Michael Fritsch advises. And send your agenda out in advance, says MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer Neal Hartman ( – not so early it gets set aside for more pressing issues but also not 15 minutes beforehand when it doesn’t allow time to cogitate.
– Don’t try to get everyone to agree on every decision made in a meeting, consultant Michael Rogers says. Just check that everyone can support it. “Meeting leaders that attempt to get everyone to agree to decisions will find themselves in the next meeting talking about the same things again,” he says on his blog.
– Since introverts may have trouble unearthing ideas alongside colleagues in meetings, consultant Renee Cullinan recommends circulating a meeting summary afterward and soliciting ideas that might have come to mind since the session.
3. Rethink the rules of reorganization
When launching cost-cutting programs, many consumer companies adopt a hands-off posture toward strategic functions seen as core to the business, such as marketing and merchandising. Instead, they focus on finding back-office efficiencies. That’s wrong, according to three McKinsey & Co. consultants, Camilo Becdach, Shannon Hennessy and Lauren Ratner. You should consider the entire organization as the scope for your cost reductions, without any exceptions.
“In our experience, when companies assess the savings potential in all their departments, they identify twice as much savings in the core functions as they do in back-office functions,” the consultants write on McKinsey.com.
They suggest that looking at interactions across departments can unearth even greater savings potential. Many companies that have been in belt-tightening mode for a while have already achieved the most obvious savings opportunities within departments but can gain from looking at inefficiencies in cross-functional, cross-channel, or cross-regional activities and processes, such as regional promotions, they say.
Another counterintuitive rule to follow is to play favourites. “Every part of the business must be fair game for cost-cutting, but that doesn’t mean that every part of the business should have identical cost-reduction targets,” they advise. Sure, it may seem fair to ask every business unit to cut costs by 10 per cent. And buy-in may be easier to achieve. But setting across-the-board targets is counterproductive if the goal is to reallocate resources from low-growth to high-growth areas. At the same time, make sure when playing favourites you are aligning with strategic priorities, not helping pet executives.
They also recommend asking for bad ideas. “An ambitious cost-reduction initiative will have the best chances of success if people in the organization are empowered to think creatively and to make bold – even outlandish – suggestions. Role modelling by senior leaders goes a long way here: When leaders aren’t shy about offering up ideas that could be controversial or unpopular, they embolden others to do the same,” they note.
4. Quick hits
– Cut your losses after bad decisions, consultant Terry (Starbucker) St. Marie says. Whether it’s a woeful hire or some other initiative that is clearly failing, swallow your pride and end the agony quickly.
– A two-word question that can change your life, courtesy of consultant Kevin Eikenberry: “Now what?” Whether it’s a problem at work or a new life opportunity, ask yourself, “What next?”
– Set a good example for your employees by always following through on what you say you will do. Blogger Eric Jacobson says if you promise to get an answer for a colleague or send a report, then like the Nike slogan urges, just do it!
– It’s terrific in job interviews to meet with the top executives you will work under, but Karl McDonnell, chief executive officer of Strayer Education Inc., suggests meeting with the people you’ll be working with most closely with to suss out the team dynamics, finding out about management style and work flow preferences.
– Here’s a surprise: A new study suggests more revealing clothing leads women to appear more intelligent and faithful.
– And in closing, consultant Susan Reilly Salgado says, “In the work environment, innovation comes from great trust, from people having a voice. Fear inhibits innovation.”
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter