Think about the last five meetings you attended. Would you say they were all productive? Engaging? A good use of your time?

Chances are that at least one in three of those meetings was a complete waste of your time and if so, you are not alone.

In survey after survey, the top complaints about unproductive meetings are:

Proof of Waste
In surveys conducted — in the US alone — from 2006 through 2008 (where approximately 11,000,003 meetings are held every day) as many as 25–50% of those meetings are characterized by those attending them as a waste of time.*

TOP COMPLAINTS: If you guessed that they are 1) that most meetings do not have an agenda, 2) they do not achieve intended outcomes (if any are even stated!), and/or 3) they are led by people who don’t have the skills to lead meetings, then join the crowd! You too have a risk of brain death via SNORES. (Sleep Nurturing Organizational Reality Everyday Syndrome)

Want to increase employee retention and morale? Here’s one more bit of news. A recent study showed that the more time employees spend in unproductive meetings, the more dissatisfied they are with their work and more likely they are to quit their jobs. (*source: MIT Sloan Management: The Science and Fiction of Meetings: Winter 2007)

So what can you do if you want to run a meeting that is productive? Here are a few suggestions:

Skip information sharing meetings all together

Many meetings are called just to share information in one–direction. In other words, come to the meeting and just sit there and listen. If this is the case, just skip the meeting all together and send the information out via email, or post the information somewhere. Still feel the need to hold the meeting? Then make it a mini–meeting or even a standing meeting, a meeting that lasts no more than 10 minutes!

If you are running a meeting to problem–solve, then be deliberate about designing your problem–solving meeting

Here’s the challenge with the way many problem–solving meetings are run:

  1. The problem to be solved is not clear
  2. The meetings often start with boring PowerPoint presentations of data that put people to sleep and aren’t absorbed by the (dazed or dozing) listeners
  3. Guidelines that support creative thinking are usually not followed

Gut Check Time!
Does all of this craziness feel familiar to you?

The result? Not much gets done. In fact, when we ask audiences during our innovation training, “How many people have been to a meeting recently that has gone nowhere?” the question is usually met with uncomfortable laughs…and a lot of raised hands!

When we follow up with the question, “How many ideas do most of your problem–solving meetings produce?” The answer is usually somewhere between 2–5 ideas.

And when we ask, “How would you describe most of those ideas?” The answer is usually, “Very safe, close–in ideas.”

Now think about this next question honestly: Have you ever been in a meeting where the first idea shared is shot down by others? What happens to the idea production of the others in the room?


Really think about it.

Yep. It goes right down the tubes and that meeting is doomed! In most conventional meetings, ideas that are considered at all risky are often shot down immediately. Then the only ideas that really get shared and implemented ultimately are the lowest risk ideas, or those proposed by the leader, or whoever is the alpha–male/alpha–female, or the “mouth of the moment” who is just stubborn enough to wear everyone down.

So here are a couple of suggestions, based on more than 55 years of research in creativity and innovation, and more than a decade of practical application in both our training programs and meeting facilitations:


Meeting Time-Passing Activity
Here’s a fun thing to try the next time you’re bored in a time–wasting meeting: calculate the amount of money the meeting costs in terms of lost productivity. Figure out the estimated average hourly wage of the employees, multiply it by the number of people, and the duration of the meeting. A two–hour meeting with 15 people who make $85K per year costs $1275. Which doesn’t count benefits (another 40%). What? Still bored? Take a look at your calendar, and start figuring out the weekly cost of those meetings. Wondering where your budget went? Plan meetings carefully!

Create idea safety by separating the divergent and convergent work of the meeting. Diverging is the generation of options and converging is choosing which option to move forward. Ask people to defer their judgment during the generation of ideas and to generate a quantity of ideas. Record these ideas in public (on a flipchart, whiteboard, computer). Then, have people choose which ideas to move forward.

Set the stage for the meeting by sending out a pre–session memo that includes: an agenda with key outcomes of the meeting (we are looking to generate ideas on “How to improve sales of product x?”), expectations for how the meeting will be run (We will first generate lots of options then choose the best ones to move forward) and a pre–read that includes key background info to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then instead of starting off with a PowerPoint that puts people to sleep, hold a 10 minute Q & A session on the data, ask people to share two insights that they took away from the pre–read, quiz them on the data (so that they think about it), ask people for what they found most surprising, or something else to get them actively involved.

Have a plan: We occasionally run into organizations that “get it,” and actually tell people that, “if there’s no agenda, then there’s no meeting.” That’s how important they are. Meetings can be such a colossal time and money waster, that they should be well planned and thought out. Considering creating a Power Agenda.

Seven Elements of a Power Agenda

Purpose – issues to be addressed: a power agenda fully describes the issues that will be addressed in the meeting. For example:
Instead of: “Production issues” (vague, ambiguous, and not informative!)
Write: “How might we get unit #3 to produce the product up to specification.”

Process – Method: a well–crafted agenda states the process that will be used to address each issue.
Instead of: “Group input” (doesn’t allow the group to prepare for what they’ll be doing)
Write: “Structured brainstorming to generate ideas, then narrow the list via the Highlighting technique, followed by voting to select the ideas on which to move forward”

Product – Desired Outcome: agendas that create progress declare the goal for what will be accomplished at the end of each agenda item. This helps the leader run the meeting with outcomes in mind, and the group knows what to expect and where the meeting is going to end up.
Instead of: “Improve productivity”
Write: “10 ideas for how to improve the productivity of unit #3”

Time Limits: Done right, the agenda clearly indicates how long the group will realistically spend on each issue. When time is up, the meeting owner determines whether to spend more time on the issue or move on to the next issue. The leader makes the choice to spend more time on the issue with the realization that s/he will have to sacrifice other items on the agenda or run late. Unless timing is enforced, the Power Agenda is worthless and weak.

Roles: Consider assigning three key roles to help your meeting run better:

Time Manager: This can be the meeting leader or an appointed individual whose focus it is to note beginning time and track time spent on a) each issue or b) overall length of meeting, as well as rounding up issues at meeting’s end.

Minute Manager: It is vital that solutions and conclusions have resolution! To that end, it is highly recommended that a minute manager be involved from the beginning. This individual will take either formal or informal notes on the agenda issues and input from meeting participants. Further, the Minute Manager will also compile said minutes and distribute to those involved for follow–up.

Client: Indicates who submitted the concern or issue. This helps to point out who is responsible for making the requests and decisions necessary for the meeting to address their needs.

Priority: The final piece of the agenda is the rating of importance of each item. Creating a scale (hot/warm/cold; A–F; high/medium/low; etc.) that prioritizes the items helps the leader address the most important issues first. This helps ensure that the less important issues are the ones that get dropped if the meeting runs long, rather than delaying the crucial issues until the next meeting.

Umm…: Really there are six elements to the power agenda, but we had a cool drawing of a guy with a tablet with “7” on it.
But wait! 7) Make sure there is room for some light heartedness in your meetings!

So, if you are looking to have a productive meeting, the question is, “Are you willing to create a meeting by design?” If so, give the ideas above a try and let us know how your next meeting goes. We’ll bet that chances are it will be pretty productive!

Do meetings have to be like vacuums? No. But just waltzing (or even rhumba–ing) in to the conference room without doing a lot of planning is a costly drain on time, resources, morale and overall energy. If you do some planning and thinking in advance, you’ll clean up with better results!

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