UPDATED: February 13, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 12, 2023
group of colleagues having productive meeting

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” —­Dave Barry

That assessment by the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author is right on. A 2022 Otter.ai survey of over 600 employees from 20 industries found that, “on average, employees have 17.7 meetings (totaling 18 hours) per week,” numbers which increase as “management level and number of direct reports increases.” Additionally, non-management employees reported that only 11.9 hours of those weekly meetings were critical, leaving just under six hours of unnecessary meeting time that could have been put to better use.

In hard dollars, the price of meetings that aren’t productive is enormous. The same Otter.ai survey found that “for companies of 100 people, cutting unnecessary meetings would save nearly $2.5 million each year and for companies of 5,000 that savings rises to over $100 million.”

Ground rules for more productive meetings

Meetings can generate ideas, provide clarity and facilitate action. But how can business owners and managers turn around the proverbial time-suck? Follow these ground rules to have more productive meetings.

1. Just say no.

The biggest problem with meetings is that there are too many, says Kathleen Allen, an expert in entrepreneurship and Professor Emerita of Clinical Entrepreneurship at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. “So many leaders do it for show,” she says. If the intent of a meeting is to have people report what they’re doing, have them write a memo instead.

2. Watch the clock.

One major time-waster is waiting for people to arrive. Some executives encourage promptness by scheduling meetings at weird times, such as 8:47 a.m. Have a time limit (preferably no more than an hour) and stick to it, even if you don’t discuss all agenda items. Never waste time telling stragglers what was discussed before they arrived.

Paul Tronsor, vice president of global network planning and business analytics at FedEx, says FedEx officials value daily operations meetings in which they evaluate business efficiency from the previous day and make continual improvements.

As one of the largest package-delivery companies in the U.S., FedEx meetings involve a recap of the night’s performance, and key representatives from around the globe report on their operations with a fire drill-like urgency. The meeting has a set time; it’s fast-paced and action-oriented.

What began as a small junk-removal service has turned into a household name with presence in roughly 200 locations across three countries. Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?—and its parent organization, O2E Brands—says efficiency is key to effective meetings.

“At any given day our staff is closing franchise deals, booking customer jobs and working with the media,” Brian Scudamore says. “We are a fast-paced, high-energy company. To stay on top we have to manage our time very efficiently. That means scheduling meetings for a half hour, 15 minutes or five minutes if that’s all that’s needed.

“Consider the total time spent in meetings for any professional person, from sales to strategy to on-the-fly important meetings. The percentage of time we spend in meetings can be staggering. To be efficient with time is critical. Conducting meetings with a start and end time, and sticking to those, is key.”

3. Set a clear agenda and objectives for a productive meeting.

One ground rule to avoid the meeting-for-meetings’-sake syndrome is to establish objectives upfront, Allen says. Set an agenda and stick to it.

Strategies FedEx incorporates include following a checklist, using audio/visual material for clearer communication and using a “post-game” philosophy in which issues that can’t be resolved in the meeting are given an action item and a deadline.

Both FedEx and 1-800-GOT-JUNK believe in establishing a clear objective for all meetings. Define the type of meeting for all participants ahead of time. Is it a reporting session? Brainstorming? Problem-solving? Give context and a goal, not just a meeting time. Make sure regularly scheduled meetings also have clear objectives. When adhering to a plan for effective, productive meetings, people will begin to perceive meetings as an opportunity to make significant progress at work.

Preparation and clear communication can make or break a meeting. Use an agenda, outline or plan of action for every meeting. An agenda can keep participants focused and be used as a frame of reference.

“It’s up to the meeting facilitator to determine what needs to be done in advance of the meeting so that time spent in the meeting is used wisely,” Scudamore says. “The facilitator also should prepare the participants and communicate what the objectives and expectations are.”

4. Tailor the invitation list for more productive meetings.

Steve Jobs was famous for kicking people out of meetings if he didn’t think they needed to be there. Being in a meeting shouldn’t be a status symbol. Instead, the key to productivity is to invite only those who are really necessary to tackle an issue or problem. 

Another ground rule for meetings is that participants should be contributors, problem-solvers and decision-makers. “One of the things we have done is to consider who really needs to be at meetings,” Scudamore says. “Does it make sense to use up this person’s time if it’s not critical they be at the meeting?”

Greg Smith, a software business consultant, says if speed is of the essence, you may need to bring in more people to get a project moving quickly. However, in the normal course of business, smaller is better. “Five people can take us 90% there,” he says. “We try to balance how far we can go with the least amount of people so we don’t waste time and money tying everyone up.”

5. Make meetings uncomfortable.

Smith is a disciple of agile project management, a standard among software development firms. One of its cornerstones is the daily scrum or daily standup, which is exactly what it sounds like—a meeting sans chairs. Smith says making people stand assures that meetings will be short (never exceeding 15 minutes) and to the point.

If the meeting isn’t focused to begin with, removing chairs may not do much good. There are other options, though, for more productive meetings.

6. Turn a meeting into exercise.

Thought leader Nilofer Merchant got a lot of buzz in 2013 for her TED Talk extolling the virtues of the walking meeting. “Sitting has become the smoking of our generation,” says Merchant, whose book The New How explains ways of collaborating for better business outcomes.

Rather than sacrifice her health for her career, she got off her duff and began walking 20 to 30 miles a week while discussing business. “There’s this amazing thing about getting out of the box that leads to out-of-the-box thinking,” she says.

While the walk-and-talk meeting might not work for large corporate meetings, Allen says getting out of the office—a kind of mini-retreat—can be a plus. “If it works for a group and a group feels better walking and talking, why not?” she says.

7. Visualize a better, more productive meeting.

Using a whiteboard to let people express their ideas is a good way to generate new ideas and keep the meeting focused, Allen says. “In my ideal meeting room, all the walls would be whiteboard.”

8. Use cutting-edge video conferencing.

Once seen merely as a way to save money on travel, video conferencing has become key to business communication, says Proofpoint CEO Ashan Willy.

Once featuring faceless voices crackling out of spaceship-looking devices in the middle of conference tables, video technology now allows workers to actively participate in meetings thousands of miles away. “Technology that we use can actually detect a person’s sound and movement and zoom in on the face” so that everyone’s facial expressions are easily read, Willy says. “That makes the remote person feel like they’re part of the meeting.”

9. Be a good meeting leader.

The leader of the meeting should ensure that everyone is heard. That no one is dominating exclusively and there are no extensive side discussions happening between people. Put someone in charge who is respected by everyone. Remember: It is sometimes more effective to encourage individual reports than to focus solely on group discussions.

10. Success breeds success.

A meeting is of little use without results. “Follow-up is crucial, because this is where we get to the results of the meeting,” Scudamore says. “The question is asked, ‘Who will do what by when,’ and then single-point accountability is assigned to each person.”

Following these ground rules and hitting goals will set the tone for future meetings. “If you have a consistent history of productive outcomes, then people will have an interest in attending your meetings,” Willy says.

This article was published in April 2011 and has been updated. Photo by bbernard/Shutterstock

Jane Musgrave has worked for various newspapers for 30 years, including The Palm Beach Post, her current employer.