“Our meetings are too long! How do we make meetings shorter?”
It’s a very common complaint about meetings. After all, people often feel that meetings are an inefficient waste of time.
And, of course, that’s often true. Many, many meetings are too long and they should be faster, shorter and more efficient. And many meetings need never happen when a memo, email, or simple executive decision is a better use of everyone’s time.
But should you always strive to have short meetings? No. In fact, it’s not uncommon for meetings to be too short.
Granted, people rarely think a meeting should be longer because we rarely enjoy being in meetings. We find that they quickly feel unproductive, unengaging and boring. It’s understandable that no one wants to spend another minute in that kind of meeting.
Unfortunately, that means that processes that benefit from more time, thought, refinement and collaboration get short shrift. It’s fine to set a 30-minute or hour limit for a meeting filled with quick updates and brief discussion. But when the stakes are higher, people still often want to jam longer, more involved processes in a small box because we’ve all been burned with meetings that go too long and seem to not net positive returns after an hour or two. Think about meetings where an organization is charting its future, choosing a vision, doing strategic planning, determining pricing, conceiving of new products, etc. These are big topics with big challenges and they’re often full of differing opinions. Simply generating a base of valuable, diverse ideas and understanding the sentiment in the room might take an hour or two. Forging agreement or consensus might take an afternoon. When so much is at stake, it’s worth devoting more time than it takes to listen to a podcast on your morning commute.
If we agree that some meetings are too short and should take more time, how do we do this so those meetings are productive, engaging, and even fun? How do we ensure that we don’t burn gun-shy participants who are mistrustful of spending hours cooped up in a meeting room?
- Train your meeting leader to run a better meeting. Very few people have ever learned how to run a meeting. The developer who’s the point person on a new product may have a decade of coding experience and know a handful of languages, learned over thousands of hours – but he or she has never had a single class on running a good meeting. That’s not a bad investment.
- Designate a facilitator. It can be hard to wear two hats at the same time: the person running the meeting and someone invested in the outcome of the meeting. In this case, you may have someone internal but outside the given department or team who has a proficiency with running meetings or you might hire an outside facilitator.
- Plan in advance. Like an iceberg, most participants will only see the time they spend at a meeting, but there can (or should) be significant time prepping for that meeting. What’s the agenda? How will we start it? What’s the end goal? What activities will we use to get from the beginning to the end? How do we ensure the right people are in the room?
- Design the room to be comfortable. You may do everything right but then be undone by an environment that’s too hot or too cold and forces people into thinking they want to leave. (Conference centers are notorious for blasting their air conditioning until people are shivering.) It’s also hard to get people excited about spending hours in a bland, windowless room and even more so when it means sitting on uncomfortable chairs. Your board room might be the wrong choice while your lobby might be the superior spot.
- Let people see the map. You may have a plan and it may be a good plan for how you’re going to spend your collective time together. But if it’s all in your head, it makes it harder for people to feel comfortable with the plan. Let them know how the day will be broken up. Let them know what you want to accomplish at different points.
- Similarly, put people at ease that there will be time to stretch, go to the bathroom, reply to email, or eat. Hunkering down with a team in isolation, without distractions, can be very valuable; however, it’s still usually asking a lot of people to remain rooted in a chair for hours on end.
- Think about how engaged people will be. While it’s true that not everyone wants to talk and share and be active all the time, meetings where people mostly sit and listen tend to drain energy from the group as time wears on from hour one to hour two to three or four and so on. Consider chunking time so that people are not just an audience, but that they’re actually part of a meeting; they’re engaged and talking or sharing. A half hour meeting can be bearable and even effective if only some of the people are active and participating; it’s hard for a meeting to feel effective and engaging when people aren’t participating for long stretches during a day.
- Stay on track. There is inevitably some chaff that must be separated from the wheat when, for example, codifying an organization’s mission over the course of a day. But when one knows there is a full day of time available, it’s easy for conversations to become tangents that become rabbit holes. Setting out rules at the beginning – we’re talking about the mission, not how to improve revenue, etc. – can keep people in their lane. Or you can assign a conversation cop to gently raise a metaphorical flag when the meeting starts to drift.
- Don’t get stuck. Often more time spent on a problem is just that: more time – and not better, clearer ideas or solutions. Think about ways to generate ideas quickly, to iterate on ideas, to break a large group into smaller groups to attack a problem from different angles, etc. The same group of six people patiently sitting around a table tossing out ideas for 60 minutes versus 30 minutes may not net substantially different results.