by: Ryan Fuller
We’ve all been part of a bloated weekly meeting. You know the one, with 20-plus attendees that’s been happening every week for years; where everyone attends because they’re supposed to, but no one gets much value out of it; where everyone multitasks or wishes they were somewhere else (or both). The sheer amount of time invested in these low-value interactions is a high-cost impediment to getting things done. So how do you fix it?
Not with a sweeping gesture or an edict from a CEO. That’s because meetings tend to be reinforced by norms and network effects – if one person attempts to fix it by, say, declaring that they will no longer attend meetings on Wednesdays, the overall system tends to reject the change. In other words, their colleagues will just continue to schedule meetings on Wednesdays.
Popular tactics like removing conference room chairs, plastering the walls with meeting rules, or banishing PowerPoint presentations don’t work, either. They can be helpful, but aren’t sufficient to implement lasting cultural change.
The key is to engage all employees in a new way of thinking about time management and to encourage them to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable. To liberate victims from this seemingly inescapable vicious cycle, it’s necessary to kick-start a virtuous cycle in which everyone is empowered to say no, ask why, and identify strategies to allow everyone in an organization to be more effective on a day-to-day basis.
At VoloMetrix, we help companies quantify how much time goes into meetings and what effects they have on people. In the process, we have analyzed over 1 billion meetings across dozens of large businesses, so we have a rather unique perspective on both how widespread the problem is as well as how elusive the solutions are.
You and Your Team
Our experience with one Fortune 500 company in particular offers some useful lessons for any organization. The problems probably sound familiar. Senior executives felt like they sat in useless, regularly scheduled meetings day after day. In some cases, they didn’t even know the names of half of the other attendees, let alone why they were there. And while they knew the situation was bad for upper management, they feared it might be even worse for the more junior teams. Their primary concerns were cost and productivity – they believed that if they could free up time, they could redirect it to higher value activities like designing and building new products faster. So we started with a diagnostic phase to put some numbers around what was actually happening.
First, after some analysis, we learned that they were spending substantially more time in meetings compared with companies of a similar size. We also discovered that most of their meetings were coming at the behest of top executives themselves, and that the biggest driver of overall time spent in meetings was the result of too many attendees.
In order to change this meeting culture, the company’s leadership first and foremost acknowledged the problem and communicated to employees that they were committed to fixing it. It’s critical to note that the messaging made clear that this was not about micromanaging employees’ days, but rather asking them to be more conscious of the cost of their own and others’ time. Monthly dashboards were also provided to senior management, who could track a number of variables, including how much of others’ time people were consuming based on the meetings they initiated; the average number of attendees per meeting; suggestions for how managers might best reach established meeting-reduction targets; and quarterly scorecards that tracked progress across all functions. Transparent data was also shared with employees so they could see exactly what meeting norms existed across their departments and how they varied from external benchmarks.
Three principals were behind the design of this program:
- Transparency. Sharing the data with all of the relevant people on a regular basis made people more comfortable with the program and more aware of how their personal behavior impacted company time.
- Targets. Everyone needed a goal that they could work towards. Some groups targeted an overall reduction of the time spent in meetings (e.g., 30%), while some kept it more directional, but everyone had something to score themselves against.
- Internal benchmarks. It’s one thing to see how you personally are doing against a target; it’s another to see how you are doing relative to your colleagues. Regular check-ins showed people how they compared, which motivated faster change and provided a catalyst for productive discussions about what the most successful people were doing differently.
It’s been a year since this initiative started, and the company has gained back an average of 5 hours per person per week. Having freed this time up from meetings, they’ve managed to save tens of thousands of hours per year that can be redirected to higher value activities, with a side bonus of improved employee engagement and morale. Some other interesting findings include:
- The duration of meetings hasn’t changed, even though there are now fewer of them.
- Lots of meetings have been cancelled or are no longer being scheduled, with various divisions seeing anywhere from 10%-30% decrease in the sheer number of meetings.
- The biggest driver of time savings is a reduction in the average number of attendees. Most divisions were able to reduce average attendees by around 20%, which in some cases was the equivalent of up to 15 people.
- One of the clearest changes is an approximately 40% reduction in total time spent in leadership meetings, defined as any meeting with the words “Leadership Team” somewhere in the subject line. Much of these gains were driven by reducing the attendee list to only include the actual leadership teams, whereas previously many attendees were also bringing several people from within their own teams. These additions were leading to bigger meetings, more time consumed, and less efficient interactions.
- Culture is set from the top, so when leaders made clear and well communicated changes in their own behavior, those changes actually did ripple through the organization.
These seemingly big changes are not the result of one drastic “no more meetings!” order. Rather, the problem is being fixed by getting lots of people to make several, relatively painless decisions every day, like “I can get away with only 5 people in that meeting versus 10,” or “I’m going to ask that person if I really need to attend that meeting or if I can just get the minutes.”
These are decisions everyone at your company should be making, but not until leadership assesses the true drivers of meeting overload. If you’re a small company, you may be able to get at that with a few internal discussions. More likely, you’ll need data to understand what’s really happening. But regardless of which bucket you fall into, the first step is to declare meetings to be a real business problem, rather than how most of us commonly think of them: as an unsolvable annoyance.
About the Author
Ryan Fuller has nearly two decades of expertise helping organizations increase overall effectiveness through sophisticated business analytics. Previously a manager at Bain & Company, Ryan is currently the CEO and co-founder of VoloMetrix, a people analytics technology company that provides actionable insights to improve organizational responsiveness and drive productivity.
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