Skye Book Review: 7 Steps to Avoid Death By Meeting

SkyeTeam Leadership Development Best Business Books

The London School of Economics and Harvard Business School have just released findings from their Executive Time Use Project, a study monitoring how over 500 chief executive officers spend their time in the workplace.  According to the results, as reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, CEOs spent an overwhelming majority of their time in meetings.

One of the central findings of the study, is that CEO’s from around the world, spend at least a third of their work time in meetings. This may not be a surprise to many of us!  The study, known as The Executive Time Use Project, incorporates time logs (of tasks lasting longer than 15 minutes) kept by their assistants over the course of a week (the week was chosen by the researchers). The preliminary findings were published in a Harvard Business School paper, and reported in the The Wall Street Journal, published February 14, 2012.

Executives spent roughly 18 hours of a 55-hour week in meetings, three hours on calls and five hours in business meals. The rest of the time was spent traveling, in personal activities such as exercise, or in short activities such as quick calls. The time they worked alone was just six hours a week.  The research supports our experience and in talking with employees at all levels and across organizations and industries the number of meetings that employees are expected to attend has reached epidemic levels.  Being double or triple booked in some companies is seen as a badge of honor – a reflection of how important one is. The reality is that most of these meetings become nothing more than ‘talking-shops’ a social opportunity to connect with colleagues with (unfortunately) few decisions actually made.

Think about your last week, in fact, take out your blackberry, iPad, Android phone or planner, whatever your system is and take a look.  How many hours did you spend in meetings last week?  How many meetings achieved their purpose (if there even was one communicated)?  How many meetings were held only to be ‘rescheduled’ for another time when all parties could be present? How many meetings were ‘about the meeting next week’? – meetings about meetings, whatever next!

Patrick Lencioni’s book ‘Death By Meeting’ is a great book that portrays what can go wrong with meetings.  When we work with leaders who are experiencing Meeting Mayhem we challenge them to take control of their time and to decline meeting invitations that don’t have a clear purpose / focus communicated, to which others are better qualified to attend.  This challenge is usually met with “oh no… I couldn’t possibly do that…”

If you can’t decline the meeting requests you receive, you can at least impact the meetings you host.  The following best practices will help to ensure that your meetings are effective

  1. Identify the Purpose of the Meeting: This may be obvious, but take a look at your outlook invites.  How many are empty shells that simply tell you what time and in which room to show up?  In Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni outlines a number of different types of meeting, to ensure that teams focus on the tactical (fire burning today) issues AND have time to focus on the strategic (forward-looking) issues.  Having a clear purpose allows the right participants to be identified and invited to the meeting and the agenda to be created.
  2. Create the agenda:    It allows those who have been invited to prepare in advance and contribute to the best of their ability.
  3. Invite the right people: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should… an effective meeting will have the right players in the room and no more.  If you are used to 10+ people attending your business meetings, especially those where a decision has to be made, then I would argue you have the wrong people in the room!
  4. Select a time-keeper:  It may feel like Kindergarten to need to have a time-keeper… but the role is critical.  A timekeeper can help you stay on task and your agenda.  If a discussion is going long the time-keeper can briefly interrupt the discussion.  This allows the team to stop and make an informed decision to keep the discussion going (and what will be dropped from the agenda), table the conversation for later, or to decide that enough debate has occurred and determine the next steps.  If you have ever sat in a meeting that has dragged on and on (and my guess is that at that point there are only two or three people still ‘debating’) this habit could help you tremendously.
  5. Start on time: It’s a simple tactic, but delaying the start for a few late comers is disrespectful for those who have arrived on time.  Make this a discipline in your teams and people will get the message!
  6. Make sure phones and laptops are off:  Checking email under the desk (we all know what you are doing) or slyly taking a look on the laptop means you are not paying attention or contributing to the meeting at hand.  We had one senior leader who announced “If you cannot switch your phone / laptop off for the duration of this class (meeting) you are telling me that you can’t possibly get on a flight lasting more than 4 hours.  We are a global company… if you can’t travel then we need to talk.” Needless to say, phones were switched off and the sky did not fall in.
  7. Action Items: Make sure these are captured in a  ‘what, when and who’ style and circulated to everyone.  Start the next meeting by ensuring that these items have been completed.  If they haven’t been completed make a DECISION whether to extend the deadline, remove from the action list as no longer required, or remove the barriers to completion.  This will stop the same conversations coming up over and over again.

You may not be able to control how others plan and conduct their meetings, but you can decide how YOU want to conduct yours.  Take these seven steps, and you will see an improvement in the effectiveness and impact of your meetings… you might even finish early!!