Too many meetings can frustrate productivity and morale. Reduce them to free your team.
When your calendar staggers under the weight of too many meetings, start with design thinking, involve your team, and improve your use of asynchronous tools.
It’s a refrain we’ve heard repeatedly through the year of pandemic work-from-home. We’ve heard it from executives and from front-line leaders: “We have too many meetings. I know we do, but I’m not sure how to fix it.”
Good business meetings are an essential part of getting work done and building the relationships needed for breakthrough results. But too many meetings stifle productivity and quickly burnout team members and managers as they work earlier and later to take action on what they discussed during the meetings.
Reigning in meetings and creating space for people to do creative and constructive work is an essential leadership skill and will continue to be important in the era of hybrid in-person and virtual teams.
Where to Begin if You Have Too Many Meetings
If you’re aware that you have too many meetings, start by looking at the meetings you schedule and asking why you want to meet.
You can use Seth Godin’s design-thinking questions to evaluate your meetings:
Who’s it for?
What’s it for?
Who’s It For?
Does this meeting exist to support and empower your team? Is this meeting the most productive use of their time? Is it for your people?
Or does this meeting exist so everyone knows who’s boss?
What’s It For?
Are you meeting to help the team get the connections and information they need in order to succeed?
Or are you meeting because it’s more convenient or easier for you than using other channels to distribute information or equip your leaders and hold them accountable for cascading information?
One reason you might have too many meetings is that you haven’t asked these two essential questions and meetings end up serving many purposes they’re not built to do well.
As you consider what your meeting is for, focus on prioritization, learning, collaboration, connection, and decision-making. Any one of these (or a combination) is a useful reason to meet. Don’t use meetings as a substitute for other elements of management and leadership. (You’ll notice that “control” or “making sure people are working” are not on the list.)
What’s It Cost?
Once you ask who it’s for and what it’s for, then you can look at the cost. What will it cost to hold this meeting? Consider both the money paid to the people attending the meeting and the opportunity cost of what they could be doing with that time. Design your meeting as an investment that will provide a return in more effective teams and improved results.
For example, if you want to meet to help a team come together and solve a common problem, how are you (or someone else) facilitating the meeting to quickly build relationships and embrace that shared challenge?
Practical Ways to Meet Less
Design thinking will automatically help you eliminate meetings that aren’t building relationships or achieving results. But if you’re like most leaders we work with, you’ll still find too many meetings challenging your effectiveness. Here are some practical ways to have fewer meetings:
Make Every Meeting Count
If you’re having a meeting to discuss the meeting and then to follow up on the meeting, you can free up time by consolidating. Socialize ideas and provide people the information they need asynchronously. At the end of every meeting, take a few minutes to schedule the finish and ensure everyone knows who is doing what, and by when.
Engage your Team and Ask “How Can We…”
You’ll find willing thought-partners when you ask your team for their ideas. Use your asynchronous channels to ask “How can we meet less?” (Please don’t have a meeting about meeting less—it’s unnecessary until you have some concrete ideas to discuss.)
Think First, Then Meet
This will help your introverts and cut down on the number of meetings and make the meetings you do have more productive. Solicit ideas ahead of time. Give people time to think about what might work. They’ll likely be more creative when on a walk than staring into a computer camera. Once you’ve collected ideas, establish your success criteria, and then meet to prioritize or make a decision.
One solution we’ve seen some teams use effectively is to create iron-clad meeting-free times of day (or even entire days). If you have to schedule a meeting only during certain times, it forces everyone to prioritize whether that meeting is the best use of the time. (While also guaranteeing the deep-think time needed for other work.)
Use Asynchronous Tools Well
Your chat and project management tools can be a great help to everyone’s productivity and help people connect rapidly. But they can also frustrate your team and be counterproductive if you don’t use them well. One of my favorite guides to remote and asynchronous communication is Basecamp’s “How We Communicate” (Item 2 gives you some flavor: “Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.” Or #26: “Time is on your side, rushing makes conversations worse.”)
Send Someone Else
If you’re being pulled into many meetings because your team’s input is truly valuable, think about who else on the team might attend the meeting. Invest 15 minutes in them to learn what you would be sure to share and what questions you would ask. That 15 minutes will help your team member increase their influence, help your team be more effective, and leverage your time where you most need to use it.
If your calendar is filled with too many meetings, start by asking who it’s for and what it’s for. Engage your team, and be diligent about using your asynchronous tools well.
By David Dye