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The 7 Secrets To Eliminating Wasteful Meetings


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In a survey conducted among senior marketing executives nationally, it was found that they waste an equivalent of more than 3 months a year in meetings that they should not be attending in the first place and, where they do need to attend, in simply not being fully engaged. This article suggests 7 secrets: practical measures that can be taken to eliminate wasteful meetings, and thus allow executives to use one of their scarcest resources – their time – to much better use.

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The 7 Secrets To Eliminating Wasteful Meetings

  1. 1. THE 7 SECRETS TO ELIMINATING WASTEFUL MEETINGS In a survey conducted among senior marketing executives nationally, it was found that they waste an equivalent of more than 3 months a year in meetings that they should not be attending in the first place and, where they do need to attend, in simply not being fully engaged. This article suggests 7 secrets: practical measures that can be taken to eliminate wasteful meetings, and thus allow executives to use one of their scarcest resources – their time – to much better use. TRISTAN B DE LA ROSA Founder & Principal Coach ©2008 Banyan Way Page 1
  2. 2. If you were to ask corporate executives what is the single biggest resource that they wished they had more of, invariably the response is: Time. Yet Time is exactly the one thing that executives seem to waste with no end at every meeting they attend. In a national survey conducted among senior marketing executives (MENG,12/07), participants claimed to spend an average of 4.7 hours – about half of their normal working day – everyday in meetings. This does not include travel times. However, so much of this time seems to be spent needlessly. Of the last 10 meetings that the survey participants attended but did not preside over, only in an average of 3 meetings were their presence needed 100% of the time. In at least 1 meeting, their presence was not needed at all. In those meetings where the executives were supposed to be needed throughout, their attention seemed fully engaged in only about two-thirds of the time. The rest of the meeting, they were doing unrelated work such as reading other materials, answering emails, or chatting with their seatmates. Projecting from these data:  Of an executive’s 4.7 hours each day in meetings, an average of 1.7 hours is wasted on discussions of absolutely no relevance to him.  Where the discussion may be relevant, another 0.8 hour is lost simply because the executive is not fully engaged. In summary, a total of 2.5 hours of an executive’s working time each day is lost in ill-conceived and poorly-ran meetings. This translates to around 50 hours – a little over 6 days – each month; or over 70 working days – more than 3 working months – in a year. Adding travel time and multiplying this by the number of executives in a single corporation alone, one can only imagine what this waste converts to in dollars especially given the inflated salaries of many of these executives. While it is true that this survey was limited to marketing executives, there is no evidence that those from other functions spend less time than their marketing colleagues locked up in meetings. Clearly, there is a need to make meetings much more efficient and effective so as to eliminate, to the extent possible, this unconscionable loss of time and money. Here are THE 7 SECRETS TO ELIMINATING WASTEFUL MEETINGS: 1. Use meetings discriminatingly and sparingly. They are impositions on people’s times. It is possible that the most productive meeting may be the one that is not called at all. Carefully consider the objective: ©2008 Banyan Way Page 2
  3. 3.  If it is to inform, you may want to look at other alternatives for doing so. With e- mail, one can reach a limited select audience, or broadcast to the entire organization. You need not call for a meeting. Clearly though, if the information is sensitive – for example, a performance evaluation, a career impacting event – then a personal meeting, face-to-face or voice-to-voice, may be imperative.  If it is to reach a decision, you may reduce the number of meetings required or the meeting time by reminding the participants beforehand of the decision parameters and options. This way, the participants arrive at the meeting ready with their points-of- view.  If it is to brainstorm solutions to a problem, define the problem beforehand and ask each participant to come to the meeting armed with suggestions. This should be made a prerequisite to participation.  If a presentation is to be made followed by a discussion of its merits, send out the presentation beforehand. Limit the meeting to clarifying and resolving issues, and making decisions. 2. The agenda should be outcome-driven, not subject-driven. Proper planning is vital to a meeting’s success and this begins with correctly defining the agenda. To flag a meeting by simply mentioning the subject for discussion is not enough. In the meeting invitation, the chair has the responsibility to specify the expected outcome. From the onset, the participants must know and be prepared to drive the meeting towards that stated outcome. For instance, the subject “New Product Development Plans” does not provide enough guidance for participants in terms of what to prepare for and even as to who else should be asked to attend. Following the subject must be an outcome statement, for example: “To (a) identify the top 3 new product initiatives that will contribute at least 35% to revenues within the next 5 years; and (b) determine the capital and human resources that are needed to execute against these and the timing involved”. (See the Exhibit “Meeting Invitation & Agenda Template”.) Note that with this kind of specificity, it becomes easy to identify the persons who can contribute the most towards the outcome, and the degree and quality of preparation they need to undertake for the meeting. 3. Limit participants to those who have something valuable to contribute. One rule of thumb is to keep the number of participants to no more than 7 or 8 to ensure maximum participation from each one during the limited time involved. ©2008 Banyan Way Page 3
  4. 4. It is important to note that, with the possible exception of informational meetings, a meeting is held to surface varying and important perspectives and insights on a specific topic of common interest. Unless a participant shares his unique perspective, provides a useful insight, or advocates a specific direction, perhaps that participant should not be in the meeting at all. Next to properly defining the agenda, the meeting chair has the responsibility to spell out what each participant is expected to contribute to the meeting. In the invitation, beside each participant’s name should be the exact role he is expected to play, the information or insight he is to provide, and any other contribution of substance that he is expected to make. Without this, the participant’s time in the meeting may just be wasted. (See example in the Exhibit below.) Sometimes, it may be useful for an employee’s professional development to have him attend a meeting as an observer. This should be made clear to the rest of the participants. It is also the responsibility of the employee’s superior to ensure that the meeting topic and process is relevant to the employee’s development and maximizes the expected learning results. Exhibit: Meeting Invitation & Agenda Template Date : 1 May 2008 To : See Participants below From : Barbara, Admin Asst to John, CEO Re : New Product Development Plans. See agenda below. MEETING INVITATION Date : 1 June 2008 Venue : HQ Boardroom Chairperson : John, CEO Other Remarks : Sandwich lunch to be served Agenda Time Participants -- Contribution Subject Outcome 1. John, CEO – Review with team product development 1. Identify top 3 new product 11:00a New Product initiatives that will contribute initiatives and decide top 3 new product initiatives to support -1:00p Development at least 35% to revenues with funding and people. Appoint point persons. 2. Bob, CMO – Review segmentation trends and “Project Plans within the next 5 years; and NextGen survey results. Recommend prod-dev principles. 3. Bill, VP for R&D/ Technology – Review current, emerging, 2. Determine capital and human resources that would and far-horizon tech capabilities and capital needs. 4. Sarah, SVP Finance – Review financial resource allocation be needed to execute against these initiatives, and status vis-à-vis potential future needs. Identify potential trade- the timing involved. offs given possible product development directions. 5. Nancy, VP Admin – Review executive and employee bench strength vis-à-vis segment expansion needs. 1:00 – 1. John, CEO – Decide with Nancy final venue and budget. Others Decide venue and budget for 10th annual senior 2. Nancy, VP Admin – Present alternative venues and budget 1:15p leaders global conference. implications and make a recommendation. ©2008 Banyan Way Page 4
  5. 5. 4. Adopt a set of meeting rules for your organization. Insist that participants review these prior to every meeting and post them in every meeting venue. Here is an example of a set of meeting rules from one company: XYZ Company Meeting Rules  Be punctual. Value the time of others as you would want them to value yours.  Be prepared. We have a responsibility to the rest of the team to provide all the necessary insight and information needed to arrive at the best course of action.  Focus on delivering the outcome. o No interruptions. Put cell phones on vibrate mode and limit messages from outside only to emergencies. If you need to respond to an emergency call, step out of the room. o No parallel or side meetings. Share your thoughts with the rest of the participants, not just with your seatmate. o Work only on those related to the agenda. No e-mails, reading, or other unrelated activity.  Participation is required. If you have little or nothing to contribute, excuse yourself.  No false harmony. Real harmony is achieved when we encourage diversity in thought and opinions and we accept that this is a true source of strength.  We debate and argue hard, but once a decision is reached we stand as one behind it.  Confidential information does not leave the room. Loose lips sink ships.  We end each meeting by considering how we can make the next meeting better. ©2008 Banyan Way Page 5
  6. 6. 5. Set a robust schedule for the expected outcome to be delivered. Remember Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time allotted to it”. Set a tight but workable meeting deadline. This compels the participants to come fully prepared and to keep discussions on a high energy level and on track. Appoint a facilitator to ensure an orderly and disciplined process, and a timekeeper to keep participants continuously time-aware. In case a meeting has multiple agendas, the sequencing has to be such that participants who might be needed for only one or a few subjects are dispensed with first. This prevents a wasteful situation where participants sit through topics to which they have little or none to contribute. 6. Consider virtual meetings. Unless physical presence is absolutely necessary, consider meetings via video or phone, perhaps using web-based technology. While these do not have the personal immediacy and intimacy of physical presence, discussions tend to be less subject to distractions and outside interruptions. Precisely because the interaction is limited to voice (and one-directional sight) participants are forced to focus. There are no side-meetings, and parallel unrelated activities (such as emails) are minimized. As the meeting date and time have to be carefully orchestrated given different time zones, virtual meetings lend themselves to stricter observation of the pre-agreed schedule. 7. End the meeting by summarizing key agreements and pinning responsibilities on actions to be taken. Focus on execution: what steps are to be taken next by whom and when. Have the participants take note of these steps immediately – advise them not to wait for the formal minutes before taking any specified action. In summary, this article suggests 7 practical measures that can be implemented to eliminate wasteful meetings. Beyond simply ensuring that your meetings proceed far more effectively than ever, following these measures allow you to save substantially on what is undoubtedly one of the scarcest resources that your executives have – time. ©2008 Banyan Way Page 6
  7. 7. About the Author: Driven by a personal mission to “take executives to the edge and push them to fly – as leaders”, Tristan B de la Rosa is the Founder & Principal Coach of Banyan Way, an executive coaching and development company. He is also in the Coaching Advisory Board & Faculty of Northwestern University. Tristan brings an uncommon blend of masterful real-world experience and rich multi-national & multi-cultural insight to the Executive Coaching field. He has decades of leadership experience working at the world’s most respected CPG companies, among them P&G, J&J, General Foods, and the Wrigley Co. As country head or senior marketing executive, he has been posted in some of the world’s most important and fastest growing markets – including China, India, the tiger economies of South East Asia – and in the United States. Tristan is based in Chicago where he shares a home with his wife, Marilyn. Tristan can be contacted at Read his blog at ©2008 Banyan Way Page 7