We've all been there.
The endlessly dull and listless office meeting where the heating is up too high, one person is hijacking the floor and won't stop talking, nothing is being done or achieved and all you really want to do is SCREAM out loud or possibly eat your own shoe from the sheer frustration of it all.
Even the meagre offering of bourbon biscuits in the middle of the table won't help (and let's face it, they usually look like they've been there a few days anyway).
It's perhaps no surprise that UK office workers view over a third of all daily meetings as a total waste of time, according to a recent study by meeting provider Citrix.
“Meetings are important but sometimes they do go on forever,” said one respondent. “You always get one or two people who just want to use meetings as a chance to hear their own voice. Then there are times when it feels like you are in a meeting about future meetings. It can be mind-numbingly tedious.”
“Meetings can be a big waste of time or the biggest time saver,” says US-based careers consultant Marlene Chism. “It all depends on your skills of keeping the meeting on track and engaging your staff. The challenges that keep your meetings from being productive include going on way past the allotted time, getting off track, and meetings that turn into gripe sessions.”
Luckily for us, the traditional boardroom scene is being gradually eroded in the face of dynamic start-ups and rapid growth tech companies such as Apple and Yahoo, who are working to make daily meetings more mobile, concise, streamlined and innovative. In other words, places where things actually get done and great ideas are fostered.
Here are six ways to shake up your meeting structure so no-one's left vacantly chewing a pen lid ever again...
1. Follow the 'five people or less' rule
Before you even begin, consider who needs to be invited. Remember that the more people in the room, the less chance you have of remaining focused and on-task. Voices will get drowned out, people distracted and the chances are, you'll have asked along someone whose area of expertise is not required - meaning they will end up bored and frustrated.
“The more people you invite to your meeting, the more you sap productivity,” reads the meetings advice from LinkedIn. “If you’re inviting more than 10 people to your meeting, it might be a sign of laziness. Think of your meetings as VIP events - limit your invitations only to those whom are vital to the topic. As a rule, try for five people or less.”
Next, think about making your meetings shorter, more casual spaces to throw around ideas in.
Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, attends on average 70 meetings a week by arranging “micro” sessions of just 10 minutes. The thinking is, you expand to work with the time you have. So if you're limited to just 10 minutes, you're forced to get your point across, and present in a way that's eloquent and concise.
It's also a good idea to think of meetings as fluid, ongoing events. The late Steve Jobs was a big fan of this kind of informal structure when he was at the helm of Apple.
According to Entrepreneur Magazine, “At Apple, because quality is stressed over quantity, meetings are informal and visible progress is made on a weekly - if not daily - basis. Keeping your team in sync is not something you do once a week. It’s something you do every day.”
2. Ditch the seating
We're not suggesting you jump around, House of Pain style, but the mere act of standing up during a meeting will force you and your team to think more quickly and acutely. It's uncomfortable standing up for any period of time so speakers will be forced to express themselves concisely, in a minimum amount of time. Standing up also lends a different kind of more focused energy to proceedings.
Instead of lurking behind ipads or doodling absent-mindedly on their notepads, participants are encouraged to be present and account for themselves.
“We hold all our development ‘scrum’ meetings as stand-ups, keeping them quick and to the point. And a standing policy in meetings certainly makes people get to the point a lot quicker,” says Paul Lees, founder and chief executive of conference call provider Powwownow.
Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, agrees. “If your team has a regularly planned stand up meeting, ‘lack of communication’ is no longer an excuse for problems. Just be sure to protect the stand up meeting time by deferring larger discussions to private meetings.”
Alternatively, you could hold a walk meeting on the move, to get the creative juices flowing. Or opt to play musical chairs, whereby each person swaps seats after breaks during a long meeting, in order to mix things up a bit and encourage alertness and innovation.
3. Ban technology. No ifs, no buts.
It stands to reason that the moment someone brings a tablet or mobile into a meeting, you risk losing their focus a little. Instead of looking up at the speaker or actively engaging in ideas, that person will be dipping in and out and giving the session about 50% of their attention, at best.
“If I had a pound for every time someone said ‘sorry I missed that question’ or ‘can you re-cap please?’ I would be rich,” says Stephen Archer, director of Spring Partnerships. “There is at least one global organisation that I know of that encourages this type of meeting. They like multi-taskers and people who can do their mail and contribute to a meeting. They also believe that the earth is flat.”
“I was recently in a meeting with 8 people in the room,” says Craig Jarrow, of Time Management Ninja. “I looked around and observed that over half of the participants were working on either a laptop, cellphone or tablet. They were not “in the meeting.” In fact, they were barely participating. Their minds were elsewhere.”
It may sound a bit draconian (or back-to-school days), but Jarrow recommends handing in all gadgets at the door, for meetings that are shorter and more active, with better decisions and less interruptions.
“Every time a phone rings or some stops to read an email, you have to restart your meeting,” he says. “Time, ideas, and productivity are negatively impacted. We have all been in the meeting where the table continues to hum with sound of vibrating cell phones. It’s not just annoying, it’s counter-productive.”
4. Allocate a decision maker
You need a person in charge to lead the discussion, keep it focused and stop it wandering off track. That person is also in charge of fostering ideas that work towards a specific goal or target.
“If someone introduces a novel solution or radical idea into a meeting, it often ends up going nowhere,” say researchers at meeting provider Citrix. “It’s a similar phenomenon to what psychologists call the ‘bystander effect’, where the greater the number of people present, the less likely observers are to help a person in distress. Nobody takes ownership, so ‘decision by committee’ means the concept gets watered down, or the outcome is a safe option or even no decision at all.”
The decision maker takes a note of everyone's contributions, so that nothing goes unheard or diluted. They are also responsible for making people stick to the agenda, and must reign in speakers who go overtime or off-topic.
However they can also share responsibility with others, by making them publicly accountable for particular tasks.
During meetings at Apple, for example, tasks are divided up and assigned a D.R.I. - a directly responsible individual. By making just one person in charge of that task, it puts the onus on them to get things done by the time the next meeting comes around (rather than shared group tasks, which people can more easily duck out of).
5. Set a time limit and don't be afraid to shut people up
Create a time limit for your meeting and make a habit out of sticking to it. Ideally, you should keep this below 30 minutes - bearing in mind we run out of steam as time goes on - but if it must go on beyond that, schedule in breaks so that people remain engaged.
By applying a time limit you force people to work within those restraints, triggering creativity and focus. On the flip side, if you let a meeting simply run on, people will fill that time just for the sake of it.
It's also worth noting that if you become that person who always runs a meeting on-time, participants will be more inclined to attend and contribute. They know their time is being valued and that their schedule won't overrun if they come along.
Crucial to this is making sure speakers don't overrun and no-one hogs the floor.
“If you notice one person monopolizing the conversation, call him out,” says Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at MIT Sloan School of Management. “Say, ‘We appreciate your contributions, but now we need input from others before making a decision.’ Be public about it. Establishing ground rules early on will create a framework for how your group functions.”
You could even think about setting a time limit for speakers or cutting them off if they wander into irrelevant territory.
“All five of our developers, CTO, product manager and — as we’re still a small company our CEO — gather around a laptop and we get anyone working from home up on the screen," Andrew Lewis, a developer at Tutorfair.com, tells the Evening Standard. “Each person takes a turn — ideally no longer than a minute or two but this requires self-control — in saying what they did the day before, what they’re aiming to get done that day, and then we quickly go over any blockers that prevent us from achieving those goals. Anything that needs proper discussion gets cut off with ‘Let’s talk about this afterwards.’”
6. Focus on results, decisions and solutions - not problems
Decision-making should never be limited just to meetings, otherwise you slow everything up. So first choose what really needs to be discussed in a meeting, and what can be filtered off to emails and one-to-one chats.
Then go into your meeting with a specific objective or goal. Consider what kind of meeting it will be and what its purpose is. Even if it is a brainstorming session, you need to come away with some concrete results, whether that's 10 workable ideas or a list of tasks that need to be done in order to bring a project forward.
Hosting a meeting around any kind of vague or undefined topic - like “discussing project x” - runs the risk of not producing results, or triggering lots of rambling, irrelevant chat.
Once you have established your topic, keep the discussion focused on solutions, not problems.
“If you can’t bring proposed solutions to the table, save it for next time or bring it up in private conversations,” says Christopher Wink, of US-based start-up Technically Media. Similarly, if someone else brings up a problem or gripe, move quickly to nip it in the bud by suggesting discussing it in private, outside the meeting.
If you're holding a brainstorming session, you should avoid the temptation to jump in and critique every idea - try and let the discussion flow a little. If you deconstruct each idea put forward, you stall the pace and dynamic of the meeting and may discourage others from coming forward with their thoughts.
“There is no judging in brainstorming. Focus on capturing ideas before filtering and critiquing them,” says Wink.
After the meeting, you can pick apart the ideas more thoroughly and choose the ones you want to develop in further detail. Finally, make sure everyone is prepared and share topics up for discussion in advance.
“Nothing happens when everybody attend meetings with a blank slate. So it helps to share topics in advance and never surprise the attendees. Meetings get productive only when everybody who enters the room has ideas to defend,” says career expert Melinda Edwards.
“If all people who attend the meetings look like clueless nincompoops (including the presider himself), then it shouldn’t have been arranged in the first place. Give people time to gather ideas, let them have opinions before you all get ready to rumble. Ideas get better when it is already thought beforehand and just debated during meetings, not when you all start with an empty mind.”
Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images
Words: Anna Brech