Monday, May 11, 2015

Making Meetings Count

I've heard it said that there is nothing worse than endless meetings. I almost completely agree. Having constant meetings is exceptionally counterproductive, but to say that there’s nothing worse is to exhibit a slight ignorance. It’s not the worst thing. Having no communication is even worse. So, if both extremes are bad, then what is the proper balance?

I propose that the question is not one of balance, but rather, it's one of quality and kind. If the communication is important, and the most appropriate mode of communication is chosen, then it's almost impossible to have too much of it. The answer is not to focus on how many meetings you are having or how long they last. Rather, the answer lies in making sure that you are only communicating the things that are actually important, and in making sure that you only have meetings when meetings are the most appropriate method for communicating those ideas.

Is it important?
The first rule in team-communication is to not waste anyone's time. One of the surest ways to break this rule is to have a reoccurring team meeting which always takes place on schedule, even when there is nothing to discuss. Open ended-meetings with no set agenda are breeding grounds for worthless discussions. In the moment, it will always seem like whatever is being discussed is important, but rarely will it feel that way in hindsight. It is best to never schedule a meeting until after there are reasons for it to take place. However, if you must do so, at least cancel the meeting in advance if there is nothing important on the agenda by the time the meeting rolls around.

That brings up another important point; bear in mind that the mere act of scheduling a meeting is a waste of everyone's time, even if the meeting ends up getting canceled. Everyone has to make plans around that scheduled meeting. When the meeting is imminent, anyone who was invited is likely to avoid getting involved in anything deep until after the meeting is over. As such, never reschedule or cancel a meeting on the same day that it was scheduled to occur. Always try to cancel or reschedule it as far in advance as possible so as to avoid disrupting everyone's workday.

In addition to having an agenda, and only actually having the meeting if the topics on that agenda are immediately important, the next best way to ensure that you don't waste anyone's time is to make sure that you only invite the interested parties. If your reaction to that is to think that the uninvited people might feel left out or miss something, then chances are your agenda is too broad. Do not cover multiple unrelated topics in the same meeting. Have separate meetings for each topic. Invite only the appropriate people to each one so that no one has to sit through discussions that are inconsequential to them.

Is it the right mode of communication?
Even important communication can be a waste of time if you choose the wrong mode of communication. For instance, many people think that meetings are the appropriate venue for status-updates and announcements. They are not. Meetings are for brainstorming, discussing, and making decisions. Meetings are not for news dissemination.

If the news is important, then it's also important for everyone to receive it--even the ones who couldn't attend the meeting. It's also probably important enough to provide it in writing so that it can be retained and referenced later by everyone. In other words, email is the most appropriate way to make announcements and to provide status-updates to your team. When status-updates are sent via email, everyone will be able to review them at their leisure, without interrupting their other work. They will have the opportunity to reread them at any time. Doing so also has the side-benefit of ensuring that your team members cannot complain that they were never informed of something.

It should go without saying, but you should never go around the table asking for each person in the meeting to give you a status-update in front of everyone else. The task of status-gathering should take place separately, on an individual basis. It's your job to gather the current status of all of your team members, not theirs. There is no reason to make everyone else sit in a meeting and watch you as you do your job.

So, the next time you feel the need to schedule another meeting, don’t concern yourself with how many meetings you already scheduled that month. Don’t worry about scheduling too many meetings. Just make sure that when you do have meetings, you make them really count.

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