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Wikimedia Conference Berlin 2009 - MediaWiki Developer Meeting

Hosting Meetings Without Wasting Everyone’s Time

That word makes many of us cringe.

Some of us can recount days of endless meetings that never seemed to solve any problems, but they excel at preventing us from doing actual work.

According to Atlassian, employees attend, on average, 31 hours of meetings per month, but half of that time is wasted. $37 billion is spent annually on salaries for people to sit in pointless meetings.

In that study, participants were asked how they’ve felt about meetings or how they behaved during them. Here are their responses.

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We use meetings to facilitate discussion and collaborate. They shouldn’t get in the way of work, but that happens in businesses all over the world, no matter their size.

Nevertheless, some meetings are necessary. We have to talk to our teammates and face-to-face communication is fastest.

It’s smart to look for reasons to cut out meetings. If there’s no clear purpose, don’t waste everyone’s time. If you have to hold a meeting, however, you should take steps to make them productive.

Download this guide to help plan a productive, hassle-free meeting.

Restrict the number of attendees

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It seems like adding more people to a meeting will accomplish more work and present better ideas. In actuality, large meetings present a significant handicap.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, coined by historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson, tells us that people in groups tend to give an unreasonable amount of weight to pointless decisions. The law is based on an event where a committee was convened to debate the designs of a nuclear power plant.

But the group did not consist of engineers, physicists, builders or energy specialists, so they spent all of their time discussing a triviality they could understand: the materials needed to build a bike shed.

Today this practice is called “bikeshedding.” It applies to instances where a group focuses on a trivial component of a larger issue, or when someone present is compelled to say anything to justify their attendance, even if it adds no value.

You can prevent bikeshedding by only inviting people to your meetings who can add value to the topic. Don’t invite people to meetings just so they are informed. If their thoughts and opinions aren’t necessary, catch them up with meeting notes or a recap email.

But let’s say you have a lot of people who can provide value. It makes sense to invite a lot of thoughtful minds to a meeting, right? Surely many heads are better than one.

Actually, no. A University of Minnesota study found that group dynamics affect our behavior. When given a problem, people overwhelmingly come up with more creative and efficient solutions when they work alone. When others are around, we’re willing to conform to the group, even when we know the group is wrong.

Psychologist Solomon Asch proved this with an eye-opening study where subjects were given an easy vision test. When paid actors gave false answers, the subjects repeated those answers in order to conform to the group.

Even if someone’s opinion is relevant, that doesn’t mean they should be at the meeting. Brainstorming sessions don’t actually generate good ideas, because the dynamic of the group plays too strong an influence. A particularly influential person will dominate the meeting, causing everyone else to defer to them so absolutely that a meeting wasn’t necessary in the first place.

The solution, therefore, is to reduce the meeting attendance list as much as possible. Amazon limits meetings to the number of people who can consume two pizzas. Google harshly restricts meetings to 10 people. However you do it, keep people who can’t add value to a meeting out of it.

Schedule meetings during unproductive work time

It would be great if our employees were 100% productive all day long, but that just isn’t the case. We all have periods of the day where we’re more focused. Smart employees adjust their work habits so they exploit their high productive hours as much as possible.

Behavioral science tells us that for most people, those productive hours are the first two hours of the day after a person becomes fully awake. At this time, our bodies and minds are rested and we haven’t taken on a significant cognitive load of the day’s events.

And yet, most meetings are scheduled for morning time slots, even though productivity isn’t necessary. We don’t need 100% focus to discuss last month’s figures or update the team. This time is better spent in deep work, pushing through challenges and being creative.

Leave mornings for uninterrupted work. Resist the urge to schedule early or mid-morning meetings during this period because it can take a person 25 minutes to refocus on their original work. Protect your team’s morning burst of productivity by scheduling meetings after lunch when your team begins to lose steam. The optimal meeting time is 3 P.M. on Tuesdays.

Try to schedule meetings back-to-back as much as possible. This is called time-blocking. It puts your mind in absorption mode and leaves other portions of your day available for production.

Cut your meeting durations down

If you schedule 30 minutes for a discussion, but the attendees reach consensus in 15 minutes, what do most meeting organizers do? Do they cut the meeting short and send everyone away?

Generally, no. They spend the remaining 15 minutes seeming to work.

When you define a period of time for work, work has a convenient way of filling that slot, even though quality isn’t likely to improve. This is another law coined by Parkinson, succinctly called Parkinson’s Law.

Our attention is limited anyway. Our attention spans last 15 minutes at the most and then our minds move on to other things that we deem more important. This effect becomes more dramatic if the attendees feel the meeting’s purpose has been fulfilled.

As economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Meetings are a great trap… They are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

You can make your meetings more productive by scheduling them for no more than 15 minutes. Do not tack on any extra “just in case” time. Set a specific agenda so everyone knows what the meeting is working toward. If your meeting fulfills its purpose before the scheduled deadline, end the meeting right away and let people get back to work. (Pre-defined goals can actually cut time off meetings.)

If your meetings regularly run over their allotted time, you can speed them up by hosting them in locations without seating. Software teams need daily meetings to coordinate work, but they don’t want to devote a big portion part of the day, so they hold standup meetings. Walking meetings are useful to hasten the pace of a discussion, and they also inspire creativity.

Provide lots of documents

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Before you host or attend a meeting, ask yourself if it’s necessary. Plenty of meetings occur all over the world every day that never needed to happen in the first place.

In many cases, the meeting objective can be met with a simple email or document exchange. If the purpose of the meeting is to distribute information, that’s better done electronically.

Many discussions are best hosted online, as well. If you require in-depth responses from a group, use a chat or email thread (Slack is a great tool for this) to organize a discussion that doesn’t erode the quality of the information by forcing answers right now.

Provide as much material as possible at the start of the meeting so attendees show up prepared with thoughtful questions and valuable comments. Give them as much time as possible to consider the topic. Send this along with a clear goal for the meeting (i.e. “To identify and distribute project deliverables”) and agenda if possible.

During the meeting, have someone take minute notes. (No, not an actual minute-by-minute itinerary, but a general recap of the discussion and any decisions made.) They can be spread to people who didn’t attend the meeting, or used by attendees and other people in the organization as a reference. If you’ve never taken meeting minute notes before, here’s a great guide.

Finally, follow up your meetings with a quick email. Remind the attendees what was discussed, what decisions were made, and any actions items for teams or individuals.

Most importantly, use your follow up as an opportunity to solicit feedback. “Get a sense of whether or not your team thinks the purpose you set out to achieve at the beginning was actually fulfilled,” recommends Richard Feloni, management strategy expert with Business Insider. “Be open to suggestions on how the meeting can be improved.”

Not sure what the ideal meeting looks like? Use this free template!

Going forward

It’s smart to think of meetings like a tool. You wouldn’t use a tool if you didn’t need one, and you certainly wouldn’t use a tool longer than you necessary.

If you reduce your amount and duration of meetings, give them a clear purpose, and document them well, you’ll put a lot more time into your employee’s (and your own) hands for work.