Peter Drucker once said, “The more meetings, the less productive an organization becomes.” I have always believed that meetings are not the actual work; they are meant for teams to come together and discuss how to collaborate effectively. If a team spends too much time in meetings, it greatly hampers their ability to create value and serve customers.
Ironically, many leaders in organizations might not know what to do if they didn’t have meetings as part of their daily work. The greater harm comes from leaders randomly scheduling meetings, pulling employees away from their workstations. This “meeting attendance” becomes an invisible second job for employees, devoid of meaning yet unavoidable.
Your AI-powered meeting assistant – Huddles.app
Smarter agenda , valuable conclusions
I admire the candidness of your statement, as it accurately identifies the core issue. The three problems mentioned by Drucker have become so normalized in most organizations that they continue year after year, day after day.
If you have felt a sense of realization today and have the motivation to bring about change, I would like to share some of my experiences and methods.
The Crime of Inefficient Meetings – Part 1
Frequent and lengthy status update meetings
There is hardly any team that doesn’t have status update meetings, but how many leaders actually conduct effective meetings? These meetings often turn into reporting sessions or discussions.
In reporting sessions, each person reports their work to the leader, going through PowerPoint slides, reading documents, without any real discussion. You may even wonder if anyone in the room cares about these updates.
In discussion sessions, meetings often start with heavy topics, and suddenly, a few individuals engage in a back-and-forth conversation, while others sit idle.
My suggestion is as follows:
1. Always have a clear structure for status update meetings.
I divide the agenda structure of status update meetings into two parts: Rapid Information Sync and Issue-driven Discussion.
One of the main reasons why many status update meetings are inefficient is because they mix these two parts together.
The first part, Rapid Information Sync, is all about being “quick.” It involves quickly synchronizing information such as OKR progress, project updates, and individuals responsible for specific tasks. Team members can quickly ask questions to clarify any issues. However, my suggestion is not to allow discussions to take place during this part. If there is a need for discussion, it should be scheduled for the second part as separate agenda items. Therefore, this part is a rapid and fast-paced information sharing process. In general, for a one-hour meeting, this part should take approximately 15-20 minutes.
The second part, Issue-driven Discussion, invites any team member to propose topics they would like to discuss during the meeting. It is crucial to shift the mindset from the meeting agenda being solely planned by the leader to a collaborative process involving the entire team before and during the meeting. The underlying assumption is that the purpose of the meeting is to quickly align the team and overcome obstacles rather than being a meeting solely for reporting to the boss. Imagine if you were an employee, your level of engagement would be much higher with this mindset.
2.Prioritize agenda items
I believe you must have a to-do list for your daily work, whether it’s in your notes, a notebook, a cloud document, or a task management software. It’s safe to say that this to-do list will always exist, and you can never complete all the tasks on it because your daily task is to constantly eliminate some to-dos while adding new ones, right?
The value of team meetings is essentially periodic discussions among the team about topics related to our collaboration and operations, such as decision-making and progress. You can think of it as a to-do list for the team’s discussions. Therefore, we cannot expect to cover all the topics in a single meeting. What I mean is that I choose to end the meeting on time rather than trying to discuss all the agenda items.
So, in the limited time available, which topics should the team discuss? The method is simple: prioritize the agenda items for the meeting, and the facilitator should always start the discussion with the highest-priority item. The criteria for determining priority are universal: the impact of the topic (risk, obstacle, bottleneck, opportunity) on the team’s current goals or customer value.
For a meeting, as long as all high-priority agenda items have been discussed, it’s fine to end the meeting on time, even if there are remaining medium/low-priority items. These can be addressed after the meeting or in the next meeting.
In summary, the limited team time available should be spent discussing the most important matters.
3.Have a professional and reliable meeting facilitator
Many teams default to having the team leader serve as the meeting facilitator, while senior leaders often delegate this role to their assistants. In my experience, I have rarely seen an assistant who can truly fulfill this role. Most of the time, they only send out notifications before the meeting, collect materials, and act as announcers for the meeting agenda. In reality, the leader still controls the meeting pace and discussion direction.
Leaders are prone to focusing on their own concerns, and if the team only listens to what the leader is interested in, the whole team falls into the trap of idle conversation. Therefore, I suggest that every team should have a neutral and professional meeting facilitator. This person can be a senior employee within the team or an HR business partner.
In practice, the meeting facilitator is a professional role, similar to how a project requires a professional project manager with project management skills.
The Crime of Inefficient Meetings – Part 2
Cross-department meetings involve unnecessary participants, and only 5 minutes out of 2 hours are relevant to oneself.
My golden rule for organizing meetings is: if it can be avoided, don’t hold it; if attendance is optional, don’t attend. Many companies have a habit of holding meetings for trivial matters. Leaders and meeting organizers need to be cautious and avoid unnecessary meetings because the cost of holding a meeting is truly high. We need to maintain a mindset of respecting others’ time and valuing our own time.
Everything should be considered in terms of ROI (Return on Investment). When you need to organize a meeting, you should always ask yourself if holding a meeting is the best way to solve the problem or advance the topic. Are there more efficient alternatives?
So, how can a team improve the ROI of their meetings? Here are three suggestions:
1.Never hold a meeting without clear objectives.
Many teams organize meetings using phrases like “Let’s discuss XXX together,” “Let’s talk about XXX,” or “Let’s brainstorm XXX.” My advice is, if you hear someone inviting you to a meeting using such expressions, don’t go. How will we discuss it? Why should we discuss it? Why am I supposed to discuss it? Who else will be involved? What outcome will end the meeting? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t attend. In a way, team meetings are similar to projects, where a group of people communicates based on a common purpose. Communication without a purpose is just chatting, not a meeting.
2.If attendance is optional, don’t attend.
If throughout a meeting, you don’t need to speak or, to put it differently, if your presence or absence doesn’t make a difference and the meeting can proceed and achieve results without you, then I suggest you don’t attend. This is what Pure Silver mentioned on Weibo: a 2-hour meeting with only 5 minutes relevant to oneself.
I recommend that leaders be sensitive to the number of participants. As a general guideline, if a meeting has more than 6 attendees, for each additional person beyond the 6th, you should think twice.
A globally renowned consulting firm, Bain & Company, conducted a study and found that in a decision-making group of 7 people, adding 1 person decreases decision-making efficiency by approximately 10%. In a two-person group, individuals can utilize 93% of their abilities, while in a three-person group, this number drops to 85%. In an eight-person group, each person’s average contribution is only 49% of their potential.
In the book “Team Dynamics,” a survey of 97 sample teams revealed that larger teams tend to have worse team experiences, with more counterproductive behaviors. For example, there is increased aggression among team members, some individuals feel alienated, and more severe resource misuse occurs.
So, who should attend meetings? Based on my recommendations, two criteria can be applied: 1) The attendee needs to contribute content and actively participate in the discussions during the meeting. 2) The individual should be highly relevant to the topic at hand. (Avoid inviting people with minimal relevance or those who are only relevant for a few minutes; they can review the meeting minutes or have separate discussions if necessary.)
3. Vote with your feet for more important things
Elon Musk once established a meeting principle at Tesla, one of which is: if you’re not contributing, leave the meeting. If a meeting doesn’t require your input, provide value, or make decisions, then your presence is of no value. Leaving a meeting doesn’t signify impoliteness, but wasting others’ time is impolite.
Therefore, in the companies I work with, I encourage them to foster a meeting culture where individuals can stand up and leave at any time. No matter how important the figures present at the meeting may be, if the meeting holds little value for you and you can’t contribute much, I urge you to vote with your feet and focus on what you consider more important at that moment.
Leaders should encourage such behavior and, more importantly, lead by example to cultivate this kind of culture.
The Crime of Inefficient Meetings – Part 3
Business Discussion Meetings – Leader’s Chat Sessions
Meetings, whether big or small, have always been a trap within organizations. Recently, I heard from an HR representative of a client company (600 employees) that they organized a discussion meeting for the executive team to decide whether to change the review cycle of OKRs from quarterly to monthly. This meeting lasted for 5 hours, exhausting everyone involved, yet they still struggled to make a decision. Coincidentally, during that time, I facilitated a decision-making meeting for another company’s executive team regarding the implementation of KPIs and the trial of OKRs for the second half of the year. The team reached a decision in less than an hour, starting with a recommended 17 participants and ultimately clarifying the involvement of 5 attendees. Comparatively, the latter topic held higher importance for the organization, and the time invested could have been better utilized.
I have noticed that many teams lack expectations regarding “time” when organizing business discussion meetings, which is a terrifying situation. It means that no one knows what will be discussed or when the meeting will end. Eventually, someone, often a leader, will say, “Okay, I think we’re done for today. Let’s wrap it up.” But what does “done” mean? How far did the discussion progress?
- One-Way Gate Topics vs. Two-Way Gate Topics
First and foremost, leaders or project managers need to distinguish whether a business topic is a “one-way gate” or a “two-way gate” issue.
“One-Way Gate Topics” are irreversible and have significant impacts. Making a wrong decision in these cases can result in major losses for the team and cause severe harm to customer value.
In the face of such important decisions, we need to be extremely meticulous and cautious in our judgment. Leaders often need to gather the team to assist in conducting thorough analysis, using various methods and data models to assess feasibility and risks. However, the ultimate decision-maker is still the leader or the company’s partners. Leaders are responsible for the outcome of the decision.
“Two-Way Gate Topics” mean that you can make a decision and proceed step by step. Along the way, as you observe effects and reactions, you have the opportunity to adjust and change actions. Even if you make a mistake, you can backtrack and make a different decision.
Two-way gate decisions are sometimes referred to as “rolling decisions,” which I find to be a vivid description. Essentially, it means focusing more on the next step of the decision-making process: if you get it right, continue; if you make a mistake, go back and redo the decision.
In essence, both types can be discussed in meetings. For one-way gate topics, the leader needs to make the final call. For two-way gate topics, be bold and let go, avoiding getting stuck in endless meetings. Have short meetings and then take action as soon as possible, conduct experiments, gather feedback, and iterate quickly.
2.Have an agenda and decision-making mechanism
I never attend a meeting without knowing the agenda. To me, it’s like driving without a map.
This is especially crucial for discussion and decision-making meetings. The meeting organizer and participants should have a clear understanding of the framework for discussing issues and the mechanism for reaching decisions.
There are numerous frameworks available, and in my courses, I provide more hands-on experiences to help determine which decision-making mechanisms are suitable for different scenarios. I will share more with you in the future.
Well, good expectations, I hope the company will not roll again, and the meetings are really worth opening.
Author: Fiona Berton
Meeting Effectiveness Expert
Deeply accompanying the organizational evolution of agile transformation in enterprises.