Why You Should Skip That Next Meeting

ID-10046983Why? Because it is likely that it will be an unproductive, wasteful use of your time. Now, meetings do have a value if held for the right reason and managed properly, but one doesn’t have to survey too many studies to conclude that the odds are against you.

Late last year, I read with interest as now former Mattel CEO Bryan Cranston got business news coverage for his efforts to overhaul Mattel’s meeting culture. It was his view it was stifling creativity as Mattel continued to struggle in its financial performance. Guidelines issued included limits on the number of meeting attendees, how many meetings could take place before a decision was reached, and, of course, the dictate that every meeting should have a purpose.

What really struck me about this is that I recall the same “meeting culture” issue coming to the fore decades ago when I was a Mattel exec. What goes around comes around, I guess. Mattel certainly has a roller coaster history relative to its financial performance – sometimes due to the faddish nature of the industry and sometimes simply because of management issues. It was a bit of both during one of the down periods that occurred during my time there. And while no corporate meeting dictates were issued during that period, meetings were definitely an issue. I recall sending a brief memo to my team to offer a few simple guidelines that we could use to be more productive, despite a culture that often worked against that. I didn’t save that memo, but I’ve written it in different variations a few times in my career after Mattel.

If meetings are often problematic, why do they proliferate to the extent that they can directly create a drag on a firm’s productivity and performance? Simply stated, they are sort of the corporate version of junk food. They are accessible, seemingly less costly, and often provide a measure of comfort. It’s that feeling of satisfaction and progress we have all felt after leaving that large gathering, only to realize later that nothing really happened – much like the momentary good feeling one might have after consuming fast food only to feel a bit sick later.

Of course, the ease at which meetings can proliferate also belies the cost and impact on both your time and that of the enterprise with which you’re engaged. It may be why you are leaving the office later than you would like or why critical new product development cycles are slowing down and hurting business.

Having worked in companies that range from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, my observation is that the potential risk of meetings becoming a cultural problem seems to correlate with company size. They can become safe haven for under-performing employees in their attempt to appear productive. Well-managed performance measurement and accountability processes will eventually catch up with those individuals, but the cost to the enterprise is usually irrecoverable.

Now, despite all that I’ve stated above, I do believe that meetings are important and can be important in the process of effectively managing and leading. They may be the best example of the “necessary evil.” For example, as I wrote this, critical global issues regarding Greece and the European Union and nuclear proliferation in Iran were in search of resolutions – with large high profile meetings at the core of the process.

There is an unavoidable and, to be fair, appropriate time when multiple people need to gather and collaborate to move things forward. The collaboration that meetings can provide for things like group brainstorming can yield amazing ideas. So, I’m not suggesting here tossing out the baby with the bathwater. In truth, I’ve found successful meetings cannot only be productive, but exhilarating. It’s everything from the relief of solving a major problem to the buzz of the unexpected creative game-changing idea or getting unearthed.

So, having explored the Yin and Yang of meetings a bit, here is what I believe to be the dirty little secret of this whole meetings discussion: The fundamental principles of when to have meetings and how to have a good result are rather basic and known to most people. However, it takes real discipline and effort to consistently adhere to those guidelines, so we too often opt out. It also involves getting other team members to align and, frequently, to battle an entrenched culture that creates barriers. But, it’s worth the effort on many levels.

In the event that the aforementioned “basics” aren’t that obvious or top of mind, here’s a quick overview that originated and evolved from that Mattel memo of years ago:

Explore all meeting alternatives before going the meeting route 

You’d be surprised how many meetings can be prevented with a well-constructed email or timely phone call.

Allocate only the time necessary to achieve your goal(s) and manage the meeting to that timeframe

This is one that takes effort and skill, but you have to be uncompromising. A timing device can be useful here.

Only invite the absolute minimum number of people necessary to achieve your goal

There is no magic number as it will vary with circumstance. But, I do know that when you get beyond 6-10 people, managing a meeting, avoiding “group think,” and getting the desired result becomes more challenging.

Set an agenda and, if feasible, distribute it advance

Yes, this is basic, but if you are a skeptic, count the number of meetings you attend this week that lack a clear agenda. This is also where any expectations and/or assignments for attendees should be specified and communicated.

Be sure to define and state the goal(s) of the meeting

If you can’t, then don’t have the meeting! If you don’t, how can you expect to have a successful meeting? If you do, this is the mantra that should relentlessly drive the meeting. Again, count the meetings this week where someone clearly states at the outset what you’re trying to accomplish.

Stick to the Agenda!

That’s why you put one together…

Conclude the meeting with a review of key discussion points and decisions. If follow-up assignments are required, review and confirm buy-in from those involved.

Otherwise, you risk diluting or wasting all of the diligence and effort you’ve put in up to this point.

Don’t schedule a follow-up meeting unless you absolutely have to.

Often, the least productive meetings are those regular standing meetings – like weekly staff meetings – that over time make up a large portion of your calendar and become ritual time wasters. Be careful before adding another meeting “annuity” to your schedule.

I’ll conclude with one final point about meetings. Early on, as a junior attendee at meetings that often seemed endless and unproductive, I learned the value of decision-making. Too often, meetings generated no meaningful decisions – the apparent rationale being that making a decision equals too much potential risk. For some, even speaking was too risky.

It stood out that being able to step-up and simply make decisions, directly, or indirectly through the influence of stating your ideas, connected very closely with advancement. I offer that as a closing thought, particularly for those of you that decide to not skip that next meeting.


Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net