How to Prevent Unproductive Meetings

It’s time to start ditching business meetings that are nothing but time wasters. Here’s how to focus on the meat of meetings where real work happens.
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Real work happens when everyone involved is engaged and working toward the same goals. (Photo: rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

As a business owner, time is often in short supply. You’ve got suppliers and subcontractors to meet with, calls to make, prices to negotiate, spreadsheets to update, bills to pay, shifts to cover, complaints to resolve, social posts to write, emails to send, errands to run … and that’s not factoring in the hectic frenzy of the holiday season.

So why are you still holding long, tedious, unproductive staff meetings on top of everything else?

Real work happens when everyone involved is engaged and working toward the same goals. But sometimes, meetings feel more like time wasters than power hours. Why is that?

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“If the decision owner doesn’t make these hard choices, who will?” – Al Pittampalli, author of “Read This Before Our Next Meeting.” (Photo: Al Pittampalli)

If you’re tired of asking that question, fret no more: someone literally wrote the book on it. Al Pittampalli is an organizational consultant, Harvard Business Review writer and author of “Read This Before Our Next Meeting: The Modern Meeting Standard for Successful Organizations.” He’s been known to describe unproductive meetings as “a worldwide epidemic” and has coached companies like NASA, Biogen, IBM and Hewlett Packard to transform their cultures and ensure that real work happens in their meetings.

Here are a few questions he encourages business leaders to ask of themselves and their staff.

What warrants a meeting, and what doesn’t?

The first step to weeding out unproductive meetings is identifying which issues are meeting-worthy. “Every day, organizational leaders are bombarded with dozens of urgent matters,” Pittampalli said. “Though all of them may feel mission-critical, in reality, only a minority are vital enough to warrant the mass interruption that a meeting entails.”

You, as leader of your organization, should feel empowered to decide whether a particular issue should be a meeting or simply an email or two. Being intentional in your communication with staff, as well as factoring in the time and energy needed to plan and hold meetings, are key approaches that all managers should insist on.

Have you set clear expectations for the meeting?

One of productivity’s biggest enemies is lack of decision-making skills. To combat indecision leading up to a meeting, Pittampalli suggests avoiding using any of the following “danger” words: discuss, review, update, plan.

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For example, when a manager needs to make a decision on whether to approve a new marketing campaign, she might email her staff to set up a meeting. But in the email, rather than stating the obvious – “I need to decide yes or no on the new campaign” – she writes, “Let’s discuss the campaign, shall we?”

Pittampalli calls this maneuver “the Houdini,” because the manager’s choice of words in the email just made the decision — the obvious theme of the meeting – disappear.

“The next time you call a meeting to ‘review’ the proposal, stop yourself and ask: what decision actually needs to be made? You’ll realize that the whole point of reviewing the proposal is to decide whether or not to accept it. When your boss says let’s ‘plan’ the event, realize the word plan is hiding several decisions, so list them: Where should we hold the event? What date? Who will we invite?

And when you want to hold a meeting to “update” your staff on a new or changed policy, ask yourself: Why? “To get feedback,” he explained. “Why feedback? To learn if the staff has any problems with the change. Why does it matter if the staff has problems? Because if they do, the policy will need revising. Bingo. There’s the decision: do I need to revise the new policy?”

Who owns the decision?

Even when the decision is out in the open, take caution: all those auxiliary distractions and pitfalls can still produce a circular discussion if no one person is accountable. That’s why, for each decision, Pittampalli advised identifying a “single decision owner.”

“Companies often object, claiming they make decisions by consensus,” he noted. “But it goes without saying that getting general agreement on a decision is usually the first step, and naming yourself decision owner doesn’t change that.”

Decision owner doesn’t mean sole-decision maker, he said. Rather, the owner is the shepherd of the decision-making process, the person who makes sure a decision is made in a timely manner. This is especially important when consensus is elusive.

“If the decision owner doesn’t make these hard choices,” Pittampalli said, “who will?”

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