How to kill needless meetings: 7 tips

Stuck in recurring meeting madness? Leaders share their tips for how to have fewer, better meetings
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We've all spent days in back-to-back meetings, shuffling from one conference room to the next as the hours tick by, lamenting the time we could be spending on actual work. If we are lucky enough to have one meeting-free day a week, we guard it with our lives. 

If the majority of people can relate, why do we all seem to be stuck in meeting madness? Because despite the annoyance factor, meetings have clear benefits, points out Alexander S. Lowry, professor of finance at Gordon College

"The excessive meeting culture drives most people bonkers."

"They are essential for enabling collaboration, creativity, and innovation. They often foster relationships and ensure proper information exchange," says Lowry. "Yet the excessive meeting culture drives most people bonkers."

"Every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into time for solo work that’s equally essential for creativity and efficiency," he adds. "Even more important is that meetings interrupt the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. As a consequence, people tend to come to work early, stay late, or use weekends for quiet time to concentrate."

[ Are you known as a leader with high or low EQ? See our related story, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

CIOs and leaders who are having trouble finding the balance between meeting time and individual work – for themselves and for their team – should consider the following tips to slash the number of meetings and make the remaining ones better. 

Prioritize decisions

"Only have a meeting if a decision needs to be made. Meetings can be an effective way to discuss ideas and information, but all talk leads to not much happening. Thus, we only schedule a meeting if we know the outcome will result in a decision. For information gathering, we employ technology like Slack or email in order to allow our staff to communicate and address any issues before the meeting. This has led to a 45 percent decrease in weekly meetings for us and those we kept are now shorter. We also employ a parking lot of off-topic ideas. If anything arises in a meeting which is not the basis for the meeting, we put that topic on the parking lot so that we can address it outside of the meeting." – Matthew Wolach, President, Synlio

Shorten meetings by 15 minutes

Companies get stuck in a hamster wheel of one meeting ending and another beginning – at the same time.

“We schedule meetings that would typically be an hour to be 45 minutes and require they have an agenda. The shortened time keeps employees focused and on track, and enables the next meeting to start on time. I see most companies stuck in a hamster wheel of one meeting ending, while the next one begins at the same time. This leaves no time for employees to go to the bathroom, get a glass of water, change rooms, or prepare for the next meeting. When people are not given the proper time to do these necessary things, they will create it. The result is employees leaving in the middle or ‘checking out’ of one meeting, or arriving late to the next, leaving the people in that room to wait. They are missing out on pertinent information, next steps, and wasting the time of their fellow employees. This obviously cuts down on employee productivity as well as employee engagement and efficiency. If every meeting is 45 minutes you can start on time, nobody is irritated, and you can get much more accomplished.” – Suz O'Donnell, President, Thrivatize

Create meeting-free time

"Designate a certain amount of time each week for people to focus on independent work — whether in the office or at home. Giving them such flexibility and freedom can provide necessary relief in their schedules, along with an incentive to make the arrangement work. Declaring 'meeting free' periods also forces the whole group to reevaluate meetings that were normally scheduled during those times and to ask who really needs to attend. As a result, we find, teams hold fewer meetings overall, and fewer people go to each one. The additional 'white space' in everyone’s calendar increases individual productivity and reduces the spillover into personal time." – Alexander S. Lowry, professor of finance, Gordon College  

Limit "crisis" meetings

"Step one is, do you even need a meeting? Many meetings are created by people that have a crisis that day. Most of these are not true crises. Plan for one hour each week to talk about these types of issues. Push all the discussions and distractions about these topics to that meeting. Emails, text, and other forms of communication can serve to get people on the same page until then. (Perhaps the issue will even resolve itself before the meeting occurs). In the meantime, leaders should invest more time in planning for the meeting than the meeting will actually take. Be clear why you are having the meeting, and make sure only those people who need to be there are in the meetings.

Meetings are normally driven by the culture of the company and the process is handed down from previous generations. Make sure you are not handing down too many crisis meetings - limit them, or eliminate them if you can."  – Wayne Strickland, VP of global distribution strategy, Hallmark Cards

Prune the attendees

"Review and regularly prune your invitees and recurring meeting lists. Meetings have a tendency to sprawl out of control in more ways than one, and recurring meetings especially because they outlive their purpose or people get added and are no longer relevant. Take a look at the recurring meetings on your calendar and look at the attendee list. Do all of those people need to be there? Remove folks and send them a nice note to explain why; you'll be surprised, often the response is one of relief! The other thing I often do is review and find recurring meetings to cancel, because often the reason why they are created is no longer relevant or they've lost their momentum." – Ada Chen Rekhi, founder and COO, Notejoy

Don't hesitate to cancel

"Don’t have a meeting if you don’t need one. Cancel meetings the moment you realize that one is not needed. If you do need to have the meeting, publish an agenda with prioritized topics, updates, and/or decisions that require every single one of the attendees. Focus on actions, decisions and sensitive updates that must be made with urgency. End the meeting early if all objectives are met. Follow up with minutes that capture the germane points, actions needed, and decisions made. Finally, something we all seem to forget these days: Thank people for their time." - Dean Pipes, chief innovation architect, TetraVX

Tie meetings to revenue

"Consider what each meeting that is scheduled is costing the company, in hours and revenue, and use the numbers to decide whether it would be best to schedule fewer or less frequent meetings." - Tracy Julien, VP of marketing, GuidedChoice 

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Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.