“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 recent survey by Microsoft of roughly 38,000 people worldwide found that U.S. workers spent 5.5 hours in meetings each week—and 71 percent said those meetings weren’t productive.
In hard dollars, the price of bad meetings is enormous. Some estimates put the national cost in lost time and wasted talent as high as $200 billion annually.
So what can be done? How can business owners and managers turn around the proverbial time-suck?
1. Just say no.
The biggest problem with meetings is that there are too many, says Kathleen Allen, an expert in entrepreneurship who teaches at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. “So many leaders do it for show,” she says. If a meeting is intended to have people report what they’re doing, have them write a memo instead.
Plan ahead. One way to avoid the meeting-for-meetings’-sake syndrome is to establish objectives upfront, Allen says. Set an agenda and stick to it.
2. Watch the clock.
One major time-waster is waiting for people to arrive. Some executives encourage promptness by scheduling meetings at weird times, say 8:47 a.m. Have a time limit (preferably no more than an hour) and stick to it, even if all agenda items haven’t been discussed. Never waste time telling stragglers what was discussed before they arrived.
3. Tailor the invitation list.
Walt Disney was renowned for soliciting input from everyone, including the janitor. Steve Jobs, by comparison, was famous for kicking people out of meetings if he didn’t think they needed to be there.
The key, experts say, is inviting only those who are really needed to tackle an issue or problem. Being called to a meeting shouldn’t be a status symbol.
Greg Smith, a Seattle-area software business consultant, says if speed is of the essence, more people may have to be brought in to get a project moving quickly. However, in the normal course of business, smaller is better. “Five people can take us 90 percent 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.”
4. 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 describes exactly what it is—a meeting sans chairs. Smith says making people stand assures meetings are 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.
5. Turn a meeting into exercise.
Technology 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. Merchant now walks 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.
6. Visualize a better 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.”
7. 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 Ashan Willy, a senior vice president at Polycom, a $1.4 billion global giant.
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.”
8. Success breeds success.
The real test of whether a meeting was a waste or a winner is whether workers leave feeling they’ve accomplished a goal and fully understand what to do moving forward, Willy says. Hitting those 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,” he says.
Related: How To: Maximize Meetings