There’s an African proverb that says “even the best dancers get tired”. The same is true for regular gatherings. A common cycle is for an employee to decide “we need a regular meeting”. When the meeting starts up, it feels innovative, fresh and new. But as time goes on, it becomes boring. You’ve heard the same things before. It starts to feel like you’re all going through the motions. It feels stale.
There’s actually nothing wrong with this. It’s a natural cycle. Think of it like how the seasons of the year affect a tree. If you’re the person who first planted the tree, you don’t need to take it personally when the leaves fall off. In the same way, it’s not direct criticism of the meeting organiser, but you can look out for when meetings start to go stale and try to bring about something better. You can encourage people to identify early on when things might need to change, promoting an engaged environment.
Culture of good reporting
In any individual role, team or organisation, you should be able to pinpoint the one, two or three key metrics – those measurements that really make a difference and indicate that performance is on track. Figuring out how you share this data in particular can make a huge difference to the number of peripheral meetings being organised.
A good rule of thumb here is ‘visual and often’. Put these key metrics on a whiteboard that everyone gathers around each morning, or have them pride of place on the dashboard of whatever the key software your team is using, or have them clearly laid out in a weekly report that everyone receives. This ‘anchoring’ to the core data will help maintain focus and avoid a lot of unnecessary ‘mission drift’ conversation.
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Set a time challenge
Most meetings are arranged for one hour or half an hour purely because they’ve been set up using a shared calendar on Microsoft Outlook with these timings as the default settings. You can, of course, have a 42-minute meeting, but you’d have to type in the timings of that, which would take all of eight seconds. So, 20 minutes of everyone’s time is wasted because no one thought to break with the convention. If you’re the organiser of a meeting, use a bit of unorthodoxy. Set it to last for 42 minutes instead of an hour. Not only will your meetings be shorter, allowing you to reclaim time in your day, but they will appear different and hence purposeful.
Alternatively, set a meeting for a conventional time, such as one hour and 30 minutes, but then start it off with a difference, saying “OK, I know we’re all busy. I’m setting you all a challenge. Let’s get this done in an hour or less, rather than taking the full 90 minutes.” Everyone will love getting that time back.
Keep it small – the two pizza rule
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos uses the ‘two pizza rule’ to define the maximum number of people that should be in a meeting, or indeed a team. The rule is simple. Never hold a meeting where you couldn’t feed all of the participants with two pizzas.
As a rough rule, any meeting with more than around six people starts to lose some efficiency. This is particularly important for decision-making meetings (although of course where the goal is more about blanket communication across a whole organisation, then you’ll either need to break this rule, order some more pizzas, or occasionally just send an email instead).
You could arrange a walking meeting or an outdoor meeting, or even one in the pub, rather than one in the same stuffy meeting room you use over and over again. Or you could try committing you and your team to a week of being meeting-free.
Sometimes you won’t know what works best until you try a few things out. The point is getting comfortable with the idea of experimenting – allowing room for failure and learning, which are key ingredients for success.
This is a lightly edited extract from Graham and Hayley’s book, How to Fix Meetings (Icon Books, 2021), out now.
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