5 Ways to Avoid Useless Meeting Syndrome

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This post was originally published by HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes on the LinkedIn Influencer blog. Follow Ryan on LinkedIn:

Tremendously successful people like Warren Buffett know that one of their most precious assets is time. On the importance of protecting this valuable commodity, the billionaire businessman has said, “You’ve gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

I couldn’t agree more. And this is exactly why there are few things more wasteful (or frustrating) at work than useless meetings. Sure, there can be great value in discussing important projects and initiatives face to face, but at a certain point it’s a case of diminishing returns. Not knowing when to draw the line is a widespread business liability, often with serious consequences. Unnecessary meetings cost businesses an estimated $37 billion a year, according to at least one report. Meanwhile, studies have shown that employees spend more than 60 hours a month in unproductive meetings—half of which they consider to be a complete waste of their time.

So here are a few key principles I’ve picked up along the way that help me and my team avoid the unproductive meeting trap:

Don’t have a meeting.

One of the best ways to have productive meetings is to not have them at all. Like Warren Buffett, hone your ability to say no at work. If you get invited to a meeting that you have doubts about, ask yourself whether you absolutely have to meet to deal with the problem at hand. Can it instead be solved via email or phone? If so, politely decline the meeting and suggest taking an alternate, faster route.

VIPs only—keep it tight.

If a meeting needs to happen, keep the guestlist limited to only key players (in the context of the meeting topic). Steve Jobs was a stickler for this principle, populating meetings with essential contributors only, even as Apple grew to become a huge, global corporation.

One exercise to get started here is to try eliminating the least needed person from every group meeting. It’s certainly not personal: Let the person know that it’s simply a measure you’re taking to be respectful of his/her valuable time.

Take notes that document concrete actions to be taken after meeting.

“No agenda, no attenda.” This is a great meeting tip I learned from my friend Cameron Herold, in his book, Double Double: How to Double Your Revenue and Profit in 3 Years or Less.

At the start of every meeting, take a minute to determine who’s going to take and circulate notes. In these notes, make sure to include a section titled ‘Outcomes’ or ‘Action Items.’ After the meeting, ensure these notes get circulated to all attendees so everyone is held accountable for actions that need to be taken.

Without sticking to this process, it becomes all too easy to get meeting amnesia. Ideas discussed are forgotten and never executed. This means the meeting was largely a waste of time, which leads us back to the question: why bother meeting in the first place?

Keep ‘em short. Promote a ‘walk out’ policy.

Very few meetings need to run more than 30 minutes. I’ve been in thousands, and I know this for a fact. Most important matters can be resolved efficiently in much less time than that. So I’ve told my employees to feel empowered towalk out of any meeting that lasts more than 30 minutes. And when in meetings with me, I encourage my team to walk out at any point if they feel they are no longer gaining value. I’d much rather have them doing things which are a good use of their time than sitting around politely listening to information they can’t use.

Try it out. It’s incredibly liberating to simply rip yourself away from a meeting you don’t feel you need to be at.

Have in-between meeting interludes.

The typical executive attends 15 meetings a week. Almost inevitably, this means some meetings will have to be scheduled back to back. One issue we’ve faced at our company is that people simply don’t have time to get from one meeting to the next, which leaves others waiting around. So we’ve adopted a new practice where all meetings end at 25 minutes or 55 minutes past the hour. This ensures all attendees get a five-minute break to make it to the next meeting on time, as well as check emails or run to the bathroom, if needed.

Luckily, technology has made this easy to implement. If you use Google calendars, go to Calendar Settings > Default Meeting Length and check off the box ‘Speedy Meetings.’ All meetings you schedule in the future will default to the length you select.

The prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously once said, “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” But with some common sense tactics—and a willingness to say “no”—it’s not hard to avoid the useless meetings trap.

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