Recently Nick and I asked ourselves “How come our meetings are so dang productive?” We often accomplish more in a thirty minute meeting than we do with other people in TWO HOUR meetings. Who has two and three hour meetings, anyway? Three hour meetings always make me think of what happened to Gilligan and the gang when taking this kind of leisure cruise of productivity. And as much as I might enjoy being trapped on a deserted island with Marianne, I have things I’d like to do first. So what’s our big secret? As Nick and I discussed it, we isolated a few simpler points, but as I pondered the idea, something else occurred to me that is a little more “play and creativity” oriented. I’ll share that after the basics about why meetings in general are often not only unproductive, but COUNTERproductive.
Meetings vs Blamestorming
So first let’s make a disctinction here. I think of meetings and actual work as separate things. Meetings are for reviewing, assessing, communicating, deciding, and planning. If you’re on a team of political strategists, your meetings of course may be most of the work you do. But if you’re in any kind of production oriented work, whether it’s running a publication, building cars, or playing in a band, the bulk of the work is done elsewhere. Meetings are for fine-tuning a process, they shouldn’t BE the process. They also shouldn’t be thought of as a grievance forum. Actual grievances should be addressed directly in a separate process, whether it’s an honest one-on-one dialog, a “complaint box”, or forming a union and going on strike. Of course, good management should be aware enough of grievances to avoid that last option, but blamestorming sessions are worse than counterproductive, they can even be destructive.
The Secrets To Efficient & Productive Meetings
So the actual mechanisms behind quick and purposeful meetings are incredibly simple. Which may be the exact reason so many people overlook them. They’re just too darn easy. Below are a few really simple methods for keeping meetings quick and painless. Leaving more time for the kids, golf, laying on the beach, wasting time on the web, or that new knitting pattern you’ve been dying to try.
1.) Know Why You’re Meeting
You’d be surprised how many people don’t use simple lists, or routinely discover what they’re talking about WHILE THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT IT. Before you even arrange a meeting, identify key topics, put them in concise lists, and identify specific tasks or needs under each item.
2.) Share The Memo
Yeah, the old workplace joke about “didn’t you get the memo” is all fine and dandy. Until someone PUTS OUT AN EYE. Which is what I personally do to people who act like you should know what they’re thinking. Before the actual meeting, share the list. Let’s use the archaic term “agenda”. I break up the tedium of this with amusing subject lines in the email like “Here’s The Plan Stan”. And continue at the top of the message with “What’s the agenda, Brenda? The arc, Mark? The deal, Neil? The intent, Kent?”
3.) Time Is An Illusion
“Lunch time doubly so”, as Douglas Adams said. Which is poppycock. Time is a reliable, mechanized measurement. The human mouth can only form words at a rate defined by its physical limitations, and although some human brains seem to utilize their neural networks more or less efficiently than others, the nerve impulsives themselves move at a fairly consistent rate. Know your material, and know how much you can talk about in an hour.
4.) The Time Barrier
Ever notice how people (maybe even YOU) tend to hit a point during classes or meetings where they just start nodding off? We’ve all been there. One minute you seem fully concious, the next you suddently jolt upright with spittle on your chin, with a murmur of voices bubbling in your head. You have just hit the t-~i~-m-~e b-~a~-r-~r~-i-~e~-r. A combination of decreased blood flow and blood sugar cycles mean that the optimum uninterrupted meeting time is under an hour. Common wisdom says that it’s about 45-50 minutes. No matter what you’re doing at this point in a meeting, take a break. Ten minutes is probably good. Longer, and you risk losing focus.
5.) Pretend You’re In A Band
This is the more “play and creativity” oriented thing I mentioned at the top. If you’ve ever played music with others (Nick & I had a band years ago) you know that there’s a sort of point/counterpoint that occurs in a lot of ways. I think this is a reflexive underpinning of how our meetings work, and it’s not that hard to break down the elements:
a.) Know the difference between “jamming” and the disciplined playing of a part.
Nick and I keep an ongoing acute awareness of whether or not we’ve digressed. Digression is inevitable, but when we do it, we allow it for a moment, perhaps apologize if it’s lengthy, and then zero back in on the topic.
b.) Limit the solos, or have a cigar.
Counterpoint is the basis of all great songs. When someone has a good riff going, let it rip. If it’s turning into self-indulgent bandstanding, be comfortable checking or being checked on it. “Soloing” isn’t the same as digressing. It’s hogging. I used to keep a wrapped cigar at meetings. When someone went on a big ego kick, I’d hand them the cigar. This became a regular part of our meetings; a humorous way to check someone’s soapboxing.
c.) Parts is Parts
I worked with a successful session musician and songwriter years ago. He would jokingly say “parts is parts”, referencing the fact that the best pop songs were really just good “parts” strung together artfully. This is true with work and planning too. Know how to break things into their components, and how they relate. Some projects spin off into related ideas, and if you don’t know the song well enough, you end up with a plodding, forced medley of ideas instead of focused, deliverable results.
6.) Know Why You’re Meeting
I already said this, right? But this is where WAY too many people screw up. At the end of a poorly executed meeting, everyone just wants to be done with things and move on to their next activity, right? Well first of all, try to get the meeting flow working so that at the end of the allotted time, you have about ten minutes to review what you’ve covered, so you can streamline the notes for the next meeting, and keep momentum. When you actually wrap up this way, meetings feel GREAT. It feels like you nailed the resolving note in an orchestral piece, and can literally go “TA DA!” When you walk out of the meeting, you should feel freer and more at ease than when you walked in.
Is Your Business Like A Business, Or Like A Band?
Bands and non-profits have a few interesting things in common. The first is that they’re often started by someone who is extremely passionate about something. The second is that the term “non-profit” is useful in referring to them. And the third is that the person that started them is often so convinced of the value of what they’re doing that they forget that the world doesn’t really give a damn what they think. Having worked with both, and having also worked on developing more “businessy” businesses, I’ve seen both how businesses fail by acting like bands, and bands fail by failing to act like businesses. I’ll be touching on ideas for treating your band like a business in a separate piece, but something worth asking yourself is the reverse – is your business like a band? The ability to blast ahead simply because you’re passionate about something is the very foundation of successful entrepeneurship. But do you treat your venture as some brilliant creation, convinced that someday its genius will be discovered, making you millions? Maybe it’s time to see how your business “charts”. If it were a pop song, where would it be on the Billboard Top 100? And if you even said “99″, is that really even close to true, or are you stuck back in the dreamy-eyed “visioning” stage that inspired you at the outset? One acid-test would be to look around yourself right now. Are there a bunch of sycophants surrounding you, trying to get on your good side so they can get a backstage pass into your methods? Were you written up in Fortune this week? Are you reading this as you fly in your private jet to a tropical getaway? In an upcoming piece, we’ll talk about about scheduled assessments are a crucial part of even the smallest, simplest freelance business. We’ll probably have a quick meeting about it first though.