Productivity gurus love to pick on lame meetings.
But let’s be realistic…even top creative professionals have to endure meetings with clients or with project teams. Taking ownership of your work means taking responsibility for the quality of your meetings.
Understand What Your Client (or Boss) Really Wants
If you’re not a freelancer, pretend you’re an internal vendor to your company. Your colleagues are your customers, and your taxi meter’s running whether your sitting through a boring PowerPoint or solving your company’s biggest problems. Instead of focusing on finding your perfect workflow, tackle meeting boredom as a threat to your team’s bottom line. Most of the time, meetings evolve in a company’s culture because key decision makers want one of three things:
- Control. Some bosses and clients use meetings to maintain a sense of ownership over their teams, regardless of whether anything really happens.
- Compartmentalization. Some managers use meetings as a stopwatch for the time they allow themselves to think about a certain project or challenge.
- Accountability. Expect more meetings in organizations where face time has become the only guarantee that things get done.
It’s not enough to just demand an end to unproductive meetings. You’ll have to help your clients and colleagues find other ways to get those three needs met.
Replace Urgency with Transparency
An “around the horn” status meeting can rally teams around major milestones, but few teams really need to meet every day or every week. Try replacing status meetings with real-time dashboards that report your team’s vital statistics. Project tracking systems like Basecamp or ActiveCollab (or the recently reviewed Producteev) make it easy for team members to see who’s responsible for what and by when. Assure your boss or client that these tools give them even more control and accountability than an all-hands sit-down.
Separate Serious from Purely Social
Some organizations use meetings as surrogates for coffeehouses or bars, especially when teams love the same things. When water cooler talk bubbles over into the boardroom, encourage a substitute activity. For instance, if you’re tempted to spend a morning meeting discussing last night’s reality show, set up an offsite viewing party instead. Keep your conference room a shrine to focused productivity, while your boss compartmentalizes happy talk to a different time slot.
Mark Off Time for Meetings
Use some calendar or to-do list jujitsu to reclaim your time from clients and colleagues that don’t understand your workflow. Block off hours for creative tasks, or create some placeholder appointments during your most productive times of day. When you publish your free/busy calendar to the rest of your team, they’ll have fewer choices for potential meeting times. For extra credit, publish a separate calendar featuring just the few hours per week you’ve made available for meetings. Your colleagues will see you’re open to productive conversations, so expect to see those time slots snapped up like hot concert tickets.
When Meetings Are Mandatory…Run Them Well
Now, it’s time for you to shine. Running a meeting effectively can mean the difference between a powerful, productive half hour or a plodding, painful half day.
- Distribute an agenda. Hammer out the rundown at least a day in advance, giving more time to the most creative or potentially productive conversations. Attendees can frame up their thoughts in advance instead of forcing themselves to come up with something on the spot.
- Moderate the guest list. Make sure the right people are in the room. Plenty of otherwise fruitful meetings get derailed when a stakeholder makes up their own mind or cancels a budget line item after the fact.
- Keep time. Set the precedent for honoring each other’s time by using a debate clock. This might sound stiff or formal, but it hones your team’s ability to express ideas under tight constraints.
- Appoint a moderator. If you want to get the most passionate participation from your next meeting, find a neutral colleague to moderate your discussion. You’ll avoid hearing one voice steamroll the room, and you may open yourself up to new points of view.
- Bring a scribe. Attendees play fair when they know the conversation’s being recorded, even if just on pad and paper. Adding another person to the room makes the meeting more expensive, driving home the urgency of finishing on time.
- Offer overflow channels. Great meetings should spark discussions for days. Set up an internal mailing list, chat room, or bulletin board that continue your conversations. Build a culture of creativity outside the conference room.
Shifting the culture of a meeting-driven organization can take time, especially if you face resistance from managers, colleagues, or clients. Take each step slowly, assuring each stakeholder that they’re not going to miss a thing by eliminating one more meeting. When your meetings become rare and powerful gatherings, you’ll know you’ve succeeded.
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