Meetings are less productive than ever before — how to fix this problem now!
It’s no secret that meetings are almost universally hated. More often than not, they’re tedious, repetitive or a flat-out waste of time. After spending the last 23 years as a CEO, COO, and executive in cybersecurity and enterprise software, I can say that I have been a part of countless ineffective meetings where I likely wasted months, if not years of my life. Sometimes I led those meetings, but for much of my early career, I was an unwilling participant. This led me to spend a lot of time thinking about how to help people work more efficiently.
A recent study of 19 million meetings revealed that half a trillion dollars in the US and the UK alone — was lost due to poorly organized meetings. Some of the biggest challenges were unclear actions and confusion, poor organization and inefficient processes. All this is a tremendous drag on business effectiveness.
There’s been an incredible amount of innovation around productivity, yet somehow, even hyper-growth companies aren’t focused on how to think strategically about meetings, and how they are managed.
This article is about why that’s happening and four simple processes and mindset shifts that you can use to transform meeting culture at your company.
1. Stop paying people to do the same work twice.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen so many ineffective meetings. The bigger and more complex a meeting gets, the harder it is to ensure that it is productive and results in a clear path forward with solid execution and accountability.
In a lot of these meetings, people bring devices in, they’re multitasking and simply not listening. Meanwhile, the contents of the meeting aren’t getting reliably recorded either. Teams don’t effectively capture and track the information, so that information doesn’t live anywhere in particular. And if it doesn’t live anywhere, you cannot effectively manage it.
So when you have the next meeting, you will likely notice that people are struggling with the basics — What did we talk about last time? When is the report due? How are we keeping track of progress? You’re spending half of the meeting playing catch-up. Take a moment, and think about that. It means that employees are being paid every week to cover the same ground twice — and no one seems to care.
Frankly, if you’re accountable for results at your company — whether you’re in executive management or a team lead — this should keep you up at night.
The fix for this problem is so simple that it may seem obvious, but I can assure you that it’s not nearly as common as it should be. Every meeting should have someone assigned to capture vital actions — who commits to what, and when, including a specific due date. This isn’t the same as keeping meeting minutes and emailing them to everyone so they can sit unread in an already-overflowing inbox. Accountability is paramount, and capturing it in a consistent place that the team can use as a reference between meetings and at the next one is essential.
It doesn’t matter what you use: there are many products such as Trello, Asana and even Microsoft’s To Do (thanks Microsoft for not ruining Wunderlist). If you don’t want to change team workflows, you can capture it in a Google doc or even go low tech — a big piece of paper taped to the wall. Just start doing it so that we can ensure accountability and start getting some sleep at night. Yes, not cluttering your mind by trying to track dates and deliverables will significantly reduce stress!
2. Use team meetings to drive work forward.
The other day, I was talking to an executive at a big public company who was using Excel to track everything — all their projects and progress. It was literally one document owned by one person. Nobody else had access to it, so the owner literally had to meet with each person and update the spreadsheet. It was a colossal waste of time, and the impact on meetings was ridiculous. When you don’t have a central place to store and share progress updates — a place that everyone on the team can access — you know how you’re going to spend your meetings? Listening to updates. What a waste of time! Not to mention that those meetings are rudderless. They have no agenda.
So if you could get rid of time-wasting, unnecessary updates in meetings, what would be the best way to use that time? It’s simple. You should be tackling hard questions, ones that actually make it possible to drive work forward:
- What is preventing progress?
- What are the blockers?
- Are there decisions that need to be made?
- Are there things people need to discuss for alignment or for informational purposes?
The key goal here is to get away from the idea of an informational status update meeting. Your team meeting shouldn’t be focused on the activities people have been doing. Your meetings should be more focuses on progress, how you can move from point A to point B. Just think how powerful it would be if you could spend every meeting focusing on knocking down blockers or getting to the next level.
3. Plan more efficiently for one-on-one meetings.
We’ve established that team meetings should not be giant status updates. The same thing applies to one-on-one meetings. Sure, there’s some conversation around recent activities, but fundamentally a one-on-one should be about employee growth and development.
When you hold a one-on-one with a direct report, it should be a discussion of what’s going well and where the challenges lie. It should be about where your employee wants to be one year from now or even five years from now.
Here’s where it gets challenging. The typical manager has eight to 10 direct reports. That’s way too many to keep in your head and hope you remember everything. But don’t be tempted to start canceling one-on-one meetings because you’re overwhelmed. According to the Harvard Business Review, doing that could actually decrease your productivity.
Instead, streamline your process. Track your conversations with multiple employees. Have a shared virtual workspace, a Google doc — whatever works for you — and make sure each employee has access to theirs. Post updates and reminders to discuss. When you think of something that you want to discuss at your next one-on-one, you have a place to capture it.
This way of working frees up your mind, enabling you to really focus your efforts on growing the employee, getting the best performance out of them and building a good, working relationship — not trying to remember what you have to do this week or next week. It drives effectiveness on both sides.
4. Build more accountability into your QBRs.
Very few companies have effectively nailed the art of the large-scale meeting. More and more companies are gathering their people together on a quarterly basis to have what’s called a QBR, or quarterly business review. Sometimes they call it a “team strategy session” or a “strategic planning meeting.”
Generally, a lot of it is literally a review. Sales will provide key metrics, and marketing will provide their metrics. You’ll go over strategic goals first, and then it’s a lot of review, as well as checking in with key initiatives and strategic accounts. (Not familiar with a QBR? Check out this excellent description from Gainsight.)
Compared to team meetings and one-on-one meetings, these meetings are even more challenging because they’re less frequent, and there’s a huge volume of information.
At many companies, there’s such a large volume of information — and no good way to deal with it — that you’ll see huge PowerPoint presentations getting emailed around, or hopefully you have learned the collaborative powers of Google Slides. It’s very hard to keep track of them and the resulting discussions. And just from quarter to quarter, people have a really tough time even remembering what the last meeting was about. This memory problem and lack of consistency can have profound ramifications.
When so much is at stake, you’ve got to have effortless visibility into what you talked about not only last quarter, but two quarters ago or even a year ago. Make a commitment to housing that information in a centralized place where you can track trends and capture and search what people talked about. You’re looking at an in-depth review of information, as well as setting key goals for the next quarter.
When everybody leaves after the meeting, they shouldn’t have to try to remember who owns which task or what they’re supposed to be focused on for the next three months. It really comes down to choosing consistency over spectacle. A lot of companies have a “Big Bang” approach where everybody gets together, there’s a lot of positive energy, and then it dies down over the next few months. Then it starts up again as you near the next quarterly business review.
With a shared place for information, publicly visible dashboards showing progress to the company, and of course, a management team committed to maintaining currency, you can establish a consistent cadence of team productivity and collaboration around key company goals. And that’s how you get success.
Improving meetings isn’t trivial.
What could it mean for your company to make all of your meetings more efficient and more productive? To reference the title of an excellent book on organizational transformation, it could accelerate your transformation from good to great — really quickly.
You could spend your cycles and your gray matter on doing great things, not on trying to find that page in your notebook or an email in a pile of thousands of emails. Or you could commit to some simple but incredibly effective internal processes, and really free yourself and your entire team to focus on getting more done.
If you would like to discuss your own go to market, please reach out to me and my team at Hightide Advisors. We help software companies dramatically improve their go-to-market by providing an outside-in analysis of your company. We help identify gaps and limitations in your marketing, sales and partnership strategy and execution, which limit growth. Our approach has helped companies improve market positioning and differentiation, develop strategic partner ecosystems and increase conversion, resulting in dramatically higher growth.