An animated cartoon of a business meeting with five people sitting at a desk and balloon thoughts appearing over their heads.
Suzanne Powell
Suzanne Powell

CEO and Founder of Simple Business Transformation

The Cost of Ineffective Meetings & How to Avoid It

How many meetings do you organise or attend a week? You probably don’t question their relevance let alone think about how much they are costing the business. Last year the online scheduling platform Doodle published a report which stated that 384,657 years of productivity are lost in the UK at a cost of £45.4 bn a year Yes that’s right £45.4 BILLION. The survey revealed that while most professionals attend 3 meetings a week they felt that two thirds of the meetings were unnecessary, and 44% said it impacted their ability to do their job.

And it’s a similar story in the US where, according to www.meetingking.com, they have 11 million formal business meetings each day and waste $37 Billion in unnecessary meetings every year.

In a previous role I would have to travel twice a week to a meeting in London. The cost of my time, plus train travel, and the car park fee at the station came to £44,300 per annum. There were usually around 10 people at the meeting so then you’re looking at £443k per annum for just those 2 weekly meetings. That doesn’t include participants prep time or the venue costs!

If you had to build your budget every year and submitted a line on your P&L for 10 people to attend 2 meetings a week at a cost of £443k pa wouldn’t you look to reduce that cost?

But it’s not all bad

Any well organised meeting should add real value for you and the business. You can generate ideas with other people that you simply can’t on your own. But you do have to make them productive and that takes discipline so let’s get a grip of meetings with my Top Tips to end Meeting Misery.

 

1. Ask yourself do you REALLY need a meeting

If you have decided to set up a meeting then first ask yourself why. What is the purpose of the meeting? Is it to share knowledge, make decisions? Could you do it with a call or an email? Decide what the purpose or objective is and write it down. Remember a meeting will cost money and it could delay a decision, especially if you have to work around diaries that push the meeting to a date that is later than you really wanted.

2. Create an agenda and send it out in advance

Sending the agenda in advance has the following advantages

Everyone knows what is going to happen. Remember I said write down the purpose or objective? Well write “Purpose of meeting:” at the top of the agenda, that way everyone knows what the meeting is about and can think about ideas beforehand.  I have been to meetings where not only was the agenda not sent out in advance but there wasn’t even one on the day. No one knew why we were there and the discussion was unfocussed and we achieved absolutely nothing

It helps everyone focus on the structure. This way everyone knows what the agenda items are and who is leading on them. But if you’re struggling for ideas to put on the agenda then you have to question whether the meeting is really necessary

3. Make the agenda timings realistic

Even if it means you only cover 5 topics well instead of 10 topics badly. Set realistic timings and stick to them. I’ve seen people try to cram too much on an agenda and either run massively over or have to redo topics at future meetings. I once was allotted 15 minutes to cover a subject that would take 45 minutes, so I sent out the material beforehand so we could just discuss the required decisions and actions. Half the people read it, half didn’t. You can guess how well the slot went. Now I won’t try and cover a topic in a ridiculous time scale. If it’s good enough to be on the agenda then it’s good enough to do the topic justice. Which leads me to the next point

4. Send out the pre reading or rework in advance but be aware of the risks

Quite a few people will not read the pre work, so while it’s a good idea from a time perspective, you could find yourself having to go through it at the meeting. The people that read the pre work will have to sit through it again and so you can bet they won’t bother reading it next time. Include the pre work with the agenda and remind everyone nearer the time that the pre reading or pre work is a requirement.

5. Don't invite too many attendees

I’ve been to meetings where the organiser wasn’t sure who needed to be there so invited a huge number of people just in case. Meetings are less productive when there’s a large crowd. Research suggests 10 to 12 is the maximum you should invite. Let people know they can decline if they don’t think they will add any value.

6. Start the meeting on time

So now it’s the day of the meeting and 10 minutes after the proposed start time on the agenda people are still drifting in. The agenda timings have now gone to pot and you’re not sure whether to make a start or wait. Isn’t it annoying when people arrive late but still seem to have had the time to get a coffee before they came in. Start the meeting on time. Don’t stop talking when the late person arrives and they’ll get the message. If they are repeat offenders have a quiet word.

7. Do introductions

If you are chairing the meeting then please don’t assume everyone knows everyone else just because you know everyone. Have you ever been in a meeting and not had a clue who some of the participants were or the department they represented? I have. It’s awkward. Take it from me it’s easier to speak up at the beginning and ask “is it worth just doing a quick round of introductions” than get halfway through a meeting where someone clearly knows who you are and says “well if you email it to me I’ll see if I can help” and you have no idea who they are and therefor no idea what their email address is. Quick sneaky trick. Ask them to email you to remind you J but even better do intros at the start.

8. Set some ground rules

Ground rule number 1. Switch off phones. This one is for the people who take calls in the middle of a meeting, give an apologetic look as they leave the room and say “ Sorry but I just have to get this” You then have no idea of when they are returning but the meeting has to continue. When they do come back they often say “sorry you may have said this earlier while I was out of the room but can you explain …..” and then you have to explain to bring them up to speed.  Ground rule number 2. No emailing during the meeting. Laptops shut. Nothing says the meeting is boring more than people all doing their emails.

So set some ground rules. Add a note at the top of the agenda if you think it will help. Something like “we have a lot to cover on the agenda so I respectfully request no laptops open or calls taken. Thank you” and then on the agenda show clear slots when people can take regular breaks to catch up on emails and take or return calls.

9. Start the meeting with a summary of the meeting's pupose

I do this, even on calls. “Thanks everyone for joining. The purpose of today’s call/meeting is….” Also make sure the purpose is outcome focused eg to agree the implementation date for the new app, rather than to discuss the implementation. This way everyone knows why they are there and it’s easier to remain on topic. It also sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. Do this even if you wrote the purpose on the top of the agenda as I mentioned in tip number 2a.

10. Create an ideas parking lot

This is a whiteboard or flip chart, or a digital version, where you don’t have time to discuss it now but you don’t want the point to be forgotten. So if the discussion goes off piste bring it back with something like “sorry this is all great discussion but we are at risk of running out of time. Let’s make a note of the idea/discussion and then can we go back to where we were discussing ..”

11. Assign a person to take actions and ensure you follow them up

Make sure it’s done on an excel spreadsheet or word document so that it can be emailed to attendees at the end of the meeting rather than making notes on paper that need to be typed up later. Record actions as you go, assign one owner and name them. Assigning an action to a group eg HR, or assigning 2 or more people to an action means the action probably won’t get done as there is no specific ownership. Also ensure you agree a date for the completion of the action.

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If your meeting is going to follow up with regular calls or meetings to keep momentum going then ensure you review the previous action as the first agenda item. It will ensure things get done because no one wants to say they haven’t done what they promised. Make sure that the next meeting doesn’t have the same actions being discussed again and again, reassigned to new owners because the first owner didn’t execute the action.

12. Control the meeting

This might sound obvious but not all meetings are controlled. I have seen people come close to fighting (the MD thought tension was heathy); I have seen people who dominate the meeting and never shut up and I have seen others who don’t speak up at all. All of these situations (and others) needs to be controlled. I personally think there’s no point in saying anything unless it’s going to add value, but there are others who just can’t seem to stop talking. Make sure you draw out opinions from everyone, even the quite ones. Equally if someone keeps talking over you, or the people in the meeting, then you have to deal with it. Here’s what I do.

If I’m chairing the meeting then the first couple of times they talk over someone I might let it happen and put it down to eagerness, however if it continues then I put a hand up, palm facing in their direction, a sort of “just hold on a minute” gesture and, without looking at them I instead look at the person that is being talked over, and ask them to finish their point before turning to the “over talker” and saying “what was it you were wanting to say”. The hand is a visual cue that we respond to instinctively so most people stop talking but be subtle. Don’t raise your hand like a policeman directing traffic. Also looking at the person that’s being talked over gives them “permission” to resume talking.  To be honest most people don’t know they are talking over people and will consciously try to stop once they realise. This usually works but if it doesn’t I politely turn to them and say “sorry but can you just let (name) finish speaking” which is a bit more to the point. If I accidentally start to talk when someone hasn’t finished I say “sorry I was talking over you, please continue”It’s easier to demonstrate than explain but hopefully you get the idea.

Side conversations are another issue that need controlling. If I’m trying to listen to someone’s view but another person to one side of me is talking to the person next to them I usually find it distracting so I usually just say “sorry can we just have one conversation please.” It goes without saying that sticking to the agenda timings is also imperative. In these cases I usually tell people that are in danger of running over their slot ” just to let you know there are 15 minutes left on the agenda”

13. Get there early to ensure the technology is working

Make sure equipment you need is there, whiteboards, Zoom set up for those people that are remote, think ahead so the meeting is ready to start on time. I’ve been to meetings where the organiser forgot the light pro so slides couldn’t be shown.

Obviously I do Business Transformation for a living so for me efficiency is the name of the game. Why not calculate the cost of your meeting and ask yourself if the meeting is worth the cost.

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