Reinventing meetings

Written by
Guy Riches

30 Nov 2015

30 Nov 2015 • by Guy Riches

As the old adage says, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. That’s why we live in an age in which pretty much everything is in some way quantified, analysed and crunched into data to help us understand whether something – or someone – is getting better.

Strange, then, that meetings have largely escaped the cult of metrics. The case against a diet of dreary discussions and pointless presentations is well known, yet most attempts to address the issue seem to prefer obvious culprits to obvious solutions.

As a result, the soul-sapping get-togethers go on. The hours continue to be gobbled up. The cost to productivity remains vast – £26bn a year in the UK alone, according to one major study.

Many businesses assume that droning on and ending up with nothing to show for it is some kind of necessary evil. That belief is devastatingly wrong.

There’s no law that says meetings should:

a. drag on 
b. deliver no discernible benefit
c. have a negative effect on individuals and organisations alike.

The basics...

In fact, research suggests around one in two firms has no problems at all with meetings, so the message for those that do is that their difficulties are eminently solvable. How? Basic discipline can go a long way. For instance:

•    Have an agenda and/or a defined set of objectives. Share this beforehand and don’t stray from it once the meeting is under way.

•    Have as few people as possible attend. Those who don’t really need to be there shouldn’t be there.

•    Keep the meeting as short as is feasible and stay within the allocated timeframe.

•    Make sure everyone who attends leaves with clearly defined tasks and that these are subsequently accomplished.

Although all participants should be aware of the value of this sort of elementary rigour, the meeting leader shoulders a particular burden. As we all know, a meeting that isn’t well led is usually doomed to go nowhere.

Yet responsibility lies elsewhere, too. It’s easy to blame the hapless souls slumped around the table – and, by extension, to imply that no-one else can turn the situation around – but senior HR managers have an essential role to play in providing an organisational and cultural framework in which shorter, better meetings are a realistic goal rather than an unattainable fantasy.

A question of culture

Of course, one of the sad truths about ineffective meetings is that most staff have become conditioned to sit there and take them. It’s the depressing norm. Very few employees will say to their bosses: “That was a total waste of time.” But it doesn’t have to be like that – and HR managers are central to engineering the required breakthrough.

•    First and foremost, don’t assume poor meetings are either unavoidable or, worse still, a figment of the imagination. This is the absolutely fundamental hurdle that must be overcome, otherwise there can be no hope of progress.

•    Remember that ineffective meetings can be among an organisation’s most serious productivity issues and a primary source of employee frustration and stress. 

•    Crucially, involve staff in understanding how to make meetings shorter and better. If that means introducing KPIs, metrics and targets – well, who’s going to complain?

•    Never lose sight of the fact that employee feedback generates valuable insights that can lead to simple yet successful outcomes. But bear in mind, too, the power of anonymity.

•    Recognise that all of the above can be integrated into an overall culture of greater employee engagement and progressive talent management – and that the benefits should be reflected both in productivity and in staff satisfaction.

The overall lesson is that it pays – not just figuratively but literally – to listen. And if staff are reluctant to voice their frustration, however widespread and profound it might be, then they need a reasonably discreet means of demonstrating that something is wrong and helping to put it right. 

"one of the sad truths about ineffective meetings is that most staff have become conditioned to sit there and take them. Its the depressing norm"

Ultimately, you really don’t have to think about it for long to see that dealing with this enduring curse is one of the easiest ways for an HR function to add value. Look at this way...

If many employees see more than half of all time spent in meetings as wasted, as research suggests, then a team of 20 racks up a total of 2,000+ wasted hours every year. By modest calculations, that’s a £50,000+ per annum internal HR capital productivity issue that’s waiting to be eliminated – whereupon £50,000 will essentially be added to the bottom line.

So encourage feedback, make sense of it and put it to positive use. In the era of turning data into decisions, with everything from sales figures to IQs up for analysis, it seems crazy to let meetings off the hook. There aren’t many areas where the average staff member would welcome yet another set of KPIs, but there’s a very good chance that this might just be one of them.