Meetings seem to be the latest demon in the world of business. We hate them, they waste our time and they should be eliminated. I know what people are complaining about. When I worked  for a large consulting firm, we had monthly day-long meetings with all the consultants in our office. They were awful — boring, annoying and unproductive. I admit it — I once called in sick because I just couldn’t face spending the day in that meeting. At that time, we consultants were billing our time at about $500 per hour. Ten consultants, eight hours — each meeting cost the company $40,000 in lost billing time.

On the other hand, this morning I had a meeting with a new contact — a data analyst introduced to me by a mutual colleague. We spent an hour together talking about her work and mine, and generated all kinds of excitement about a way we could collaborate. The new idea has great possibilities for both of us, and we went away with a clear plan for next steps we would take. It was a great use of my time.

The problem is that we use the same word for both of these encounters — meetings. Any time two or more people get together, it’s a meeting. Sometimes they are awful and sometimes they’re great. So the real question is not “How can we get rid of meetings?” but “How can we make more of our meetings productive and joyful?”

I suggest thinking about these questions:

  • What’s the point? Ask yourself, “At the end of the meeting, what will make me think, ‘Wow, that was a really useful conversation!’” Then design the entire meeting around getting you to that place.
  • How long should the meeting be? The answer is as short as possible to get the job done. And remember that the human attention span is at most 90 minutes. So if you run your meeting longer, take breaks.
  • Who should be in the meeting? Again, as few people as possible to get the job done. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a “two pizza rule” for meetings. If the meeting has more attendees than you could feed with two pizzas, then it’s too big.
  • Are the participants introverts or extroverts? In general, extroverts like meetings because we formulate our ideas through talking. Introverts often find meetings painful and tend to participate less in the conversation, even when they have great ideas to offer. Pick the meeting structure that best suits your audience. For example, introverts will benefit from a more structured meeting with built-in time to collect their thoughts.

For more ideas about reducing the amount of time you spend in horrible meetings and increasing meeting productivity, check out Patrick Lencioni‘s book, Death by Meeting. I also suggest taking a look at this New York Times article dissecting how tech firms are approaching this challenge.

… And if you want to have a meeting as great as the one I had this morning, my door is always open.

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