The number and duration of meetings is a crucial issue in many companies. Bain & Company recently found that employees in US companies are in meetings for 21 of their 40 hours per week – at least 8 of which were completely unnecessary. We believe that this rate is matched or even exceeded in Germany. The impact on productivity is disastrous for all concerned. Ultimately, the work must be done outside of the meeting! There’s also an important psychological effect: Meetings are one of the key factors that demotivate staff.
We experience first-hand with our customers how frustrating such multi-meeting cultures are for participants – from junior staff to top managers. And we understand that it’s not easy to depart from such a system – otherwise it would happen much sooner, more often, and more drastically. But why can’t this meeting mania simply be stopped or abolished?
It’s partly due to an overpowering need for consensus. If the objective of the decision-making process is to include everyone affected, involved or interested, then there will always be someone who still needs to be asked, informed, or integrated. There’s always someone missing! The result: Adjournment to the next meeting. And on it goes.
Another factor driving up the number of meetings is the lack of clear allocation of responsibility. If this is located at the “top” of the hierarchy, then each decision step will entail an intensive and extensive chain of preparation. It becomes catastrophic when the final decision makers are no longer the specialists who prepared the decision, who can evaluate the content, and are ultimately responsible for its implementation. This greatly weakens the operative acceptance of decisions, slows down the decision-making process, and minimizes the employees’ sense of responsibility.
An online article in the German “Manager Magazin” – “How top managers conduct meetings” – describes how famous US business leaders ensure efficiency in their meetings. Some of these stories illustrate the experiences that we share with our customers when they want to design efficient meeting structures or improve the effectiveness of their meetings.
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg always takes her ring binder to meetings, with a prepared list of important points to go over. The signal: Each participant is versed with the content and topics of the meeting, and what the objective must be. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs made sure that no unnecessary participants were invited to meetings. The signal: Attendance only by those required for the matter at hand. It’s not about who happens to have time or would like to have a say. Google’s Larry Page established a system where a decision-maker is chosen for each meeting. And, as a basic principle, decisions don’t need to wait until a meeting is scheduled. The signal: decision-making responsibility does not require meetings, but rather people who can take and exercise this responsibility. This means that decisions are made quickly, but may also be wrong.
Finally, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who apparently does not accept any paper or digital submissions during meetings. Such information is required in advance; the meeting is a space for questions and discussion. The signal: no time wasted on supervised reading sessions; the relevant information is sent in advance for individual preparation.
What are your experiences?