Debrett's Ask the Expert: How to cut out all the pointless meetings you have

Rupert Wesson
Richard Mittie (L) and Casey Sigo (R) of
There's nothing wrong with disrupting the status quo (Source: Getty)
Q: Most of my day is spent in useless meetings and my colleagues seem blind to the fact that we’d all be more productive if we weren’t staring at each other in a room. I have just been promoted and I want to know what can I do to ensure the meetings that I lead are actually effective.

A: We all seem to spend a disproportionate amount of our time in meetings and, more often than not, they are something of an unhelpful habit rather than a necessity.

You can be reasonably confident that no-one in attendance is clamouring for more, and on that basis you should declare your aim to make meetings shorter, less frequent and more productive. You should also state that you need everyone’s help. Doing so may make it the first agenda item with which everyone is fully engaged!

You need to change a few habits, and assuming that you have an agenda, then the easiest thing to do is to establish a clear outcome for every agenda item. Then, at the end of each meeting, allocate a few minutes to review how you did against your own objectives. This way, you will focus the collaborative energy and intellect of the group in order to make changes to your meetings culture.

As part of the process, you should look at what your meetings are currently used for. All too frequently they become opportunities to tell people things, rather than actually discuss them. Why get people into a room just to tell them things they could read in an email? It is healthy to get people into the habit of sharing information in advance so that the meeting can be used exclusively for discussion.

It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that meetings are rarely used for persuading and inspiring people (when was the last time you were inspired in a meeting, honestly?) and, given that inspiration is rarely conveyed over email, a meeting is the best opportunity. This doesn’t mean that every meeting must be launched with an inspiring or motivational speech (although it is great if that does happen occasionally). If every agenda point addresses an issue that is important to the group, and it is expressed as a question that needs an answer, you will find that people want to be engaged.

This leads to the next point. As part of your shake-up, you should also question who should attend the meeting. There is a great principle that attendance can be cut down to those whose perspectives are relevant to the subject matter and that everyone at the table should have a speaking part. Put simply, if someone can’t contribute, they should not be there. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that, if decisions are needed, then a maximum of seven people at the table is ideal. Every person beyond that number reduces the potential of making a sound decision by 10 per cent.

One of your challenges will be to ensure that everyone does contribute. There are some simple guidelines that will help you achieve this. First and foremost, you must create time and space for people to speak, knowing that they will not be interrupted. In addition, everyone must sign-up to the idea that the best meetings are not competitions for air time and that everyone’s perspective is valuable. The great thing about taking this approach is that you will hear from everyone, not just the loudest in the room. This may upset the status quo temporarily, but people quickly realise the benefit.

Every meeting should conclude with suggestions for the agenda next time, followed swiftly by a collective review on how you did versus your objectives. This should ensure that meetings under your leadership continue to evolve and improve.

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