Making meetings more effective

08 December, 2014

Cut through meeting fatigue with these best practice tips.

A couple of weeks ago, I had written to our team members about the frequent checking of email and messages during meetings. Thank you to those of you who responded to the brief survey. Key highlights of your feedback include:

  1. More than 70% of you feel that checking emails and messages has become pervasive in our meetings.
  2. All of you find it very distracting when others exhibit such behaviour during meetings. Many of you wrote to me that you think this is disrespectful and not in line with our values, particularly when we have external speakers or a presentation being delivered by a colleague. There is also a perception that the senior people in the meetings are the biggest culprits.
  3. All of you would like a set of guidelines to help change this behavior.
  4. Over 70% of you also felt that we need to be more responsive when replying to emails or messages. The general consensus on this seems to be a 24-hour time limit for responding to emails that need a reply or follow up and a 6-hour time limit for text messages (unless of course, someone is travelling).

Over the next couple of weeks, I will discuss your feedback with our management committee to determine our course of action.

Another point of feedback was that one of the reasons why people end up checking email during meetings has to do with the meetings themselves – several of you feel that many of our meetings are not productive. And so, in this message, I want to address what we can do differently to make our meetings more effective.

There is no denying that meetings are an important aspect of our work. In fact, most of us organise our work days around meetings. And yet, you frequently hear murmurs about meetings:

  • The meeting is too long
  • Too many people in the meeting
  • It is not clear what the purpose of the meeting is
  • Real issues not being discussed – getting waylaid in peripheral issues; one way traffic
  • Not enough time to debate and discuss
  • People jostling for air time – blaming others, not being solution focused
  • Slide dump – too many slides being presented one after the other

So, why has it become this way?

An ex-colleague of mine, Michael Mankins, has done a lot of research on how to make meetings more productive. He writes:

Blame Metcalfe’s Law. Robert Metcalfe’s famous dictum states that the value of a network increases geometrically with the number of connected devices. One fax machine is worthless; a million fax machines create a valuable network. But the law has a dark side: as the cost of one-to-one and one-to-many interactions declines, the number of these interactions increases dramatically. And people are interacting more than ever. They are sending scores of emails every day. They are copying many of their colleagues, whether or not those individuals really need to see the message.

Worst of all, they are calling meetings. In the past, organising a meeting of executives was time-consuming and therefore expensive; assistants had to spend hours on the phone finding times that worked for attendees. Now all they need to do is check Outlook or a similar program and send a quick email. As a result, most executives are spending 20 hours or more every week in meetings. And one meeting usually spawns many more.

Nevertheless, meetings are critical. We need them in order to communicate more effectively and make decisions. If anything, as we expand and get more global, meetings are becoming more important than ever before. As we try to drive more collaboration and empowerment across our teams, meetings are necessary to share information, get everyone’s input and ensure that we are all on the same page.

So, are meetings just a necessary evil and do we just have to find a way to live with them? Or can we do something to make them more productive?

Like with other tools in business, being disciplined and focused can really help. Here are nine tips from what other companies are doing:

1. Define the purpose and scope

Be clear about why you are having the meeting. Don’t have just discussions. Discuss and decide or discuss and plan. Have a clear set of actions. Announce the purpose of the meeting in the beginning. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, asks its staff to begin every meeting with a single statement: “The purpose of this meeting is to inform you about X, to discuss Y and to decide on Z”, where Z is a specific, well-defined decision. This approach, called ‘Inform, Discuss, Decide’ (IDD), encourages people to move the ‘Inform’ items on their agenda to pre-reading material. Once you know the agenda, put it down in writing and circulate it in advance to all attendees.

2. Insist on pre-reads

Insist on pre-reads before a meeting. If everyone is aligned on the basic information, more time during the meeting can be spent in decision making. Pre-reads should be circulated at least one day prior to the meeting. Each section should end with definite questions that need to be addressed during the meeting.

3. Ensure the right set of attendees

Most meetings have two groups of people – one with people who actually participate and the other, who are passive attendees (often called ‘business tourists’). Some people like attending meetings so that they feel they are in the loop. Michael Mankin’s research highlights the ‘Rule of Seven’ – every person added to a decision-making group over seven reduces decision effectiveness by 10 percent. If you take this rule to its logical conclusion, a group of 17 or more rarely makes any decisions. Of course, a larger group may sometimes be necessary to ensure buy-in. In general, reducing the number of attendees will help make quicker and better decisions.

4. Start and end on time

Be very disciplined about this. Place issues that require separate discussions in a ‘parking lot’ so as not to deviate from the main purpose and delay the meeting.

5. Role model the right behaviours

As senior leaders, we need to make sure that we are prepared for meetings. Go through the pre-reads. If you don’t, it defeats the purpose of having sent them out in the first place. Participate. Don’t be distracted by checking email and messages. Listen. And don’t take all the airtime. Listen.

6. Be selective about the use of slides

Slides can be useful to summarise information, but too much of it can take away from the discussion. So, limit the number of slides in a meeting. Be creative – use a white board or other ways to facilitate discussions.

7. Take frequent breaks

Break the monotony with food or refreshments. This always helps. During long sessions, take frequent breaks for people to check emails and make phone calls. Announce these in advance so that people can plan accordingly.

8. Follow up

Have someone take notes during the meeting. Then, send an email summarising the key items discussed and the follow-up actions required. This can act as a tracker and recap before the next meeting.

9. Cut down on unnecessary meetings

Take a close look at your current meetings. Which ones are not focused on specific objectives? Or can be substituted by a quick phone call or email? Go ahead and remove them. My guess is that you will be able to free up at least 20 percent of your time if you do this. And that is the time you can spend on other productive activities such as mentoring sessions with your teams, more time with our consumers or learning new things.

There are a couple of other interesting things that some companies do. Some have ‘Standing up Meetings’, where people have to conduct the meeting standing up. The idea here is that people will conclude meetings faster if they don’t sit down and get comfortable. There are also ‘Meeting-free Days’, where some days are designated as days where they will be no meetings. I find this idea particularly interesting. Should we experiment with this? For instance, should we make the second half of Fridays a no-meeting time? What do you think?

As senior leaders, we are, more often than not, the ones who lead meetings. If we can commit to making meetings more effective, we really will be able to make our company much more productive.


  • Dipankar Kalita says:

    Very helpful. I also personally feel that sometime meetings are less productive then it could be.
    I will try to follow it in my workplace.


    very bold informative to top level executives

  • Anaggh Desai says:

    Over the years I’ve faced similar problems and come to follow these rules. Most of these seem to have worked for me:

    Do you really need a meeting?
    Restrict each topic to 15 minutes
    Do not allow passive spectators
    Communicate the purpose upfront
    Sum up each topic with tasks, assign them with timelines
    Don’t bring computers or phones

  • Kashyap Gala says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. Very pertinent points. I have always found it useful to cascade the importance of meetings to all my team members. Also what has always helped is being outcome focused at every meeting – be it distributor meetings, regional meetings with the sales teams or with an agency on a new copy brief. At an individual level, I feel articulating your pov in short bursts during meetings is very powerful and personally for me following the PREP (make your Point, validate your point with a Reason, substantiate with an Example, and finally Reinstate your point) format of articulation has always helped.


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