Meetings where intelligent workers turn into unproductive zombies, meetings scheduled to last half an hour that really last three, meetings where the plate of biscuits in the middle of the table appears to have more purpose and drive than the discussion going on around it: bad meetings are a fact of office life.

It is possible to stop your organisation wasting time and money on meetings that don’t achieve anything. silicon.com has drawn up a list of steps executives should take to keep meetings under control.

Meeting

Execs need to keep a tight leash on meetings to avoid them going over time and off topicPhoto: Shutterstock

1. Ask yourself if you really need to have a meeting

Before you even begin the process of setting up a meeting, you should ask yourself if a meeting is necessary in the first place.

“A lot of meetings are a complete and utter waste of time,” Sean McPheat, managing director of executive coaching firm MTD Training, told silicon. “And that’s because they’re not focused. People just turn up. People don’t know what the purpose is.”

Before calling a meeting, executives should review the magnitude of the issue they want to discuss and ask, ‘Who does this decision ultimately impact? Can we make a decision now and let people know about it in the future? Or do we need to get people involved now so they can have their say and save us some time later on?'”, McPheat said.

2. Limit the time that can be spent in meetings

The best kinds of meetings are “very short, sharp, focused meetings”, according to McPheat, so the individual who is acting as facilitator should try to avoid long, drawn-out discussions.

“You can have a meeting for a couple of hours and just be busy talking and doing nothing really. It’s the chairperson’s responsibility to really keep it on track,” he said.

“Some chairpeople actually get everybody to stand up and no meeting lasts more than 15 minutes, so that means whatever is discussed in that room has to be short, sharp, to the point and centred on action.”

US author Aaron Dignan describes a similar technique in Game Frame, his recent book on gamification. Dignan explains how one company tried to get rid of unnecessary meetings by issuing managers with an allocated amount of tokens, which they could trade in for time spent in meetings.

Each token was worth 15 minutes and when a manager ran out of tokens, they were not allowed to ask their employees to spend any more time in meetings. The company also issued every employee with a single token that could immediately end any meeting if they felt it was unproductive.

By making time available for meetings a limited resource, Dignan writes that managers are more likely to use that time in a valuable way, and the ability of the employees to end unproductive meetings gave managers an extra incentive to keep meetings focused.

3. Incognito icebreakers

“The worst thing is if people turn up and they don’t know one another, they don’t know where they come from and they don’t know any background behind the people and everyone just goes at it not really understanding everybody’s point of view,” McPheat said.

For meetings to run smoothly, attendees should know each other and be familiar with what each individual can bring to the table. But is the typical icebreaker, ‘Tell us your name and a few words about yourself’ the best way to familiarise people with each other?

“Icebreakers can be really good, but the person who is running the meeting has to have a sense for the tone of the group,” Connson Locke, lecturer in organisational behaviour at London School of Economics, told silicon.com.

“There are some groups who just hate icebreakers and if you try to do an icebreaker they will laugh at you, and for…

 

…the rest of the meeting they will be totally uncooperative.”

The chairperson should come up with a relevant introduction that is not necessarily presented to the group as an icebreaker, Locke advises.

“I try to come up with some kind of question that each person can answer, maybe an opinion or something. Then what I do is I go round the room and each person takes a turn to say something.

“By actually getting someone to say something at the beginning of the meeting, it gets them into that mode of speaking and the rest of the meeting they tend to speak up a bit more than they would otherwise.”

4. Keep quiet if you’re the boss

If the meeting involves the boss and other workers, the uneven power distribution can stop new ideas coming forward.

“There is research to suggest that the more confident you look or the more certain you seem to be, the less other people will actually speak up. People will think, ‘Oh well, the boss really knows what he’s talking about so I better not say anything’,” Locke said.

“You should be the last person to give your opinion on something because, if you are the first person to give your opinion, then everyone is going to think, ‘Oh, well the boss has an opinion, maybe I should agree’.”

Ultimately, the group can end up making a bad decision because everyone is just agreeing with the most powerful person in the room, rather than listening to all opinions.

“As the boss and as the most powerful person in the room, you need to be conscious of that and basically shut up,” she said.

Instead, the boss should ask lots of questions and give participants time to answer.

5. Encourage new ideas

To keep attendees contributing to the meeting and to get the most out of their involvement, bosses should be careful not to react negatively to new ideas at the risk of having all staff follow their lead and a consensus developed without the idea being properly considered.

“Say you’re having a meeting and one person says something controversial – everyone is watching to see how the boss is going to react,” Locke said.

If the new idea is welcomed and considered, then other participants are likely to come forward with suggestions of their own, according to Locke.

“If the boss says, ‘That’s stupid, don’t ever bring up something like that again’ then everyone will register that in their memory and from then on people speak less and less.”

6. Visual aids

While it may seem like an obvious point, using visual aids in a meeting can be vital in keeping attendees focused.

“Using visual aids is very important because a lot of people are very visual. They like to see things, they like to experience things, as opposed to just listening to voices all of the time,” MTD Training’s McPheat said.

“I like to see diagrams or bullet points, even if it’s just of the next topic. Just hearing people talk, 20 minutes in, you can just switch off completely.”

There are many apps that smartphone and tablet owners can download to help create visual aids to be used in meetings such as the Whiteboard iPhone app which allows you to draw on top of images using your phone, and the iDesk app which helps you…

 

…create charts and diagrams.

Email in meeting

Turning off digital distractions – of which there are many – can help boost productivity in meetingsPhoto: Shutterstock

7. Turn off all devices

Asking attendees to switch off their mobile devices before a meeting begins may seem old-fashioned, but research has shown that digital interruptions can reduce productivity.

If participants are receiving a steady stream of emails, social network alerts, IM and text messages, it can draw focus away from the meeting and create tension between those talking or paying attention and those who are distracted.

While some attendees may be reluctant to switch off their devices, the chair of the meeting should assure participants that they will try to make the meeting efficient and concise so attendees can get back to their emails and messages – and this is more likely to happen if no one is distracted.

8. Give everyone a role

“We’ve all been in meetings where we’re sat down, everyone’s talking and you’re just thinking, ‘This is just wasting my time, I should not be here’,” McPheat said.

By setting out individual roles and responsibilities at the beginning of the meeting, participants will have a clearer idea of what is expected of them and be more likely to engage.

“Before the meeting takes place, the chairman basically says, ‘Right, we’re here today to discuss X, Y and Z. Sean, you’re here from marketing and I want you to think about this. Jimmy, you’re here from finance I want you to think about the financial implications of this’, so everybody knows exactly what their role is within that meeting,” McPheat said.

The process of identifying what each attendee is expected to bring to the meeting could also be a good exercise for the individual.

9. Get the quiet people talking

To get the more introverted attendees to participate in the meeting, LSE’s Locke suggests discussions are started off on paper.

“If you are brainstorming something, instead of doing a verbal brainstorm, start with a paper brainstorm so you actually start with people writing down their ideas on paper and then discussing their ideas in pairs,” she said.

“You end up using Post-its and written ideas, which allows the really quiet people to write down their thoughts, instead of having a brainstorm saying, ‘OK shout out your idea’ – in which case you only hear from the loud people.”

10. Make a record of the meeting

Keeping a record of the meeting is important in making sure discussions are not duplicated and that each meeting achieves its purpose.

“There have to be clearly defined action points at the end of the meeting. Who is going to do what, when, and when are they going to have the answer,” MTD Training’s McPheat said.

Everyone should be given those action points so everyone knows what has been achieved and what is still to be done, he added.