In both official and private meeting settings (e.g. meetings of residents’ associations, old students’ associations, University alumni, families, chieftaincy houses, etc) how often do you hear these: “When is this meeting going to end?” “What the hell are we still doing here?” “With only one hour left, we have only discussed three items on our ten-point agenda!” “Time is far spent and we have not discussed any tangible thing”.
Also, the reader may have seen colleagues do any (or all) of these at meetings: fiddling with mobile phones and related gadgets, chatting or sending text messages, playing online games; exchanging notes, discussing issues unrelated to the meeting, picking phone calls, or practically sleeping and snoring!
According to “AthernaInsight”, unproductive meetings cost companies more than $37 billion annually, and National Statistics Council of the USA claimed that 37% of employee time is spent in meetings; other data indicate that there are 11 million business meetings every day. Verizon Conferencing reported that it commissioned the “Meetings in America study” to gain a better understanding of meeting trends and the needs of its customers; and it found out that 91% of people admit to daydreaming during meetings! And over one-third (39%) have dozed off at meetings!
Peter Spark, a leadership and workplace expert and President/Founder of Peter Barron Stark Companies, reported that whereas over 25 million meetings are held each day in the United States, approximately $37 billion is wasted annually on unproductive meetings. “Industry Week”, in a study of over 2,000 managers, reported that at least 30% of the managers’ time spent in meetings was unproductive. 3M conducted a similar survey with executives and found that 25-50% of people’s time spent in meetings was wasted.
Without hesitation, I could safely assert that one of the most significant sources of unproductivity is too many prolonged meetings. In formal organizations, certain days and times are usually assigned for meetings on a weekly, fortnightly, monthly, or quarterly basis.
However, observations and studies have shown that such meetings could drag for too long, and the minutes are usually reflective of only a few pages! It is not uncommon to have meetings that lasted seven hours produce a two-page minutes!
In understanding this malaise, a quick highlight of some of the reasons for unproductive meetings becomes relevant.
Reasons for unproductive business meetings
1. Lack of predetermined timeframe
One of the major reasons for this development is lack of pre-determined timeframe for meetings. Open-ended meetings tend to be long, monotonous, and unexciting. A meeting that has only three agenda-items may last for six hours, whereas another (productive one) that has seven-agenda items could last for only one hour.
2. Everybody wants to speak
Another causative factor is the participants’ penchant for speaking at all cost, even when their views or suggestions had been mentioned by other participants. Such employees do this to demonstrate ‘ability to talk’, popularity, eloquence, or authority. In doing this, sometimes, they completely veer off the meeting agenda.
3. Everybody must speak
Undue significance placed on every member speaking at meetings is also a factor. There are organizations where minutes of meetings reflect on perception of employees’ capacity and capability by superior officers; or they become one of the unofficial bases for reward and sanction.
In such organizations, the ‘loudest noisemaker’ at meetings is wrongly perceived as having gravitas, being more knowledgeable and confident. How so untrue!
On this basis, employees struggle to say something at meetings, even if the opinions are redundant, repetitive, or irrelevant. Therefore, employees don the toga of “union leaders” at meetings via unnecessary grandstanding and verbosity.
4. Lack of proper communication
As mundane as it sounds, lack of proper (and adequate) communication about venue, timing, and participants is another factor for unproductive meetings. This occurs when members have to look for venue of meetings, when meeting notices are sent too close to the date thereby disrupting participants’ schedules (unless for emergency/ad-hoc meetings), when the wrong persons receive the notice, etc. Any, or a combination of these, may make participants arrive late at meetings and issues discussed earlier, in their absence, may have to be reintroduced.
5. Lack of clarity of responsibilities
Lack of clarity regarding pre-meeting and post-meeting responsibilities also affect productivity of meetings. For instance, in already established (routine) meetings, where there is no pre-determined secretary and ‘meeting leader/anchor’, the tendency to have chaotic outcomes is high. On the other hand, a secretary and ‘meeting anchor’ could be selected among participants in cases of emergency or ad-hoc meetings. To stretch this further, nothing could be more confusing than concluding a meeting that requires execution of tasks and projects without responsibilities assigned to anyone.
How to hold productive business meetings
- In seeking to conduct efficient and effective meetings, organizations should ensure preparation of an agenda circulated among members in advance.
- Also, meetings should end on time or earlier, where possible; without short-circuiting the focus of, and reason for, the meetings.
- Meetings should not be jamborees; only employees relevant to the agenda, or to the focus of the meeting, should be invited. Without pre-empting the final outcome of meetings, clear objectives should be set ahead of meetings.
- If possible, prior ground rules should be set. Such rules could include keeping mobile devices away from the meeting venue or putting them on ‘silent mode’, starting promptly, sticking to the agenda, etc.
- The meeting should also focus on substantive matters, e.g. identifying problems/challenges, making progress toward quantitative goals, discussing new ideas for improvement, exploring lessons learned, etc.
- Minutes of meetings should highlight a summary of decisions and action items with attendant responsibilities assigned to relevant persons.
- Contributions at meetings should be moderated to avoid turning them to “students’ union rallies” where everybody may have to speak about everything.
Organizations should realize that productive meetings save enormous cost, engender employee engagement and inclusiveness, breed confidence in insider-sourced solutions, and encourage a sense of ‘ownership’ of the organization and its future among employees. Hence, they should seek to conduct meetings that contribute to their growth and development, in contrast to those which waste scarce resources.
— This article was written by Tajudeen Ahmed.