Unproductive meetings have reached epidemic status in America. Bain & Company, using analytics tools from VoloMetrix, examined the time budgeting of several large corporations. The research found that big U.S. companies are wasting millions of dollars on unproductive hours. For one business in the study, management meetings “ate up” about 300,000 hours, or the equivalent of one executive working full-time for 144 years.
So how did we fall into this trap? Let’s look at a few typical stages of business growth to help us understand:
- Founding: Your startup begins with a small group of people wearing a large number of hats, all communicating quickly and fluently. Meetings are rarely planned, as everyone is already in the know regarding the daily goings-on around the office.
- Childhood: You just hired your 10th employee. Everyone isn’t in the same room anymore. The CEO no longer manages every project or interfaces with every team member, and communication starts to break down. Mistakes that would have been avoided by the founding team start to slip through the cracks.
- Adolescence: Once you’ve hired your 30th employee, you have multiple teams in the company and maybe two or three layers of management. In this stage, the CEO has to start actively communicating the vision and direction of the company, and meetings become the default method of nailing down time with busy employees.
- Adulthood: You have more than 100 employees, and you don’t know all of their names. Now, you’re one more step removed from the frontline team members. Misalignment seems to be popping up all over the place. Bureaucracy, hierarchy and office politics start to form, and decision-making slows to a crawl, stifling any chance of innovation. Meetings become huge time-wasters, but seem to be embedded in the DNA of your organization.
By the time your business reaches these latter stages, many of your new team members have come from a culture of meetings, thinking it’s just the way things get done. At the same time, the mindset behind these meetings has taken a darker turn. Team members start to complain about the repetition, while others use them as a way to exert power or influence.
Before you’ve even realized it, meetings have transformed from organic discussions to a plague of unproductive check-ins that overshadow the daily work of the company. And once you’ve reached this point with your organization, it can feel like as if there’s no going back.
Building a stronger structure
Don’t fall into this growth trap — doing so often leads to companies moving so slowly that they fall into irrelevancy. Here are seven tips for mangling the meeting monster as your company grows.
1. Minimize organizational structure
With every extra layer of management, truly innovative ideas have a harder time breaking through the process. On the other hand, companies such as WordPress and Valve have found great success by maintaining flatter organizational structures. Keeping the command structure a little less vertical will help open up communication channels within your organization and ensure good ideas don’t get lost.
2. Create an environment of random collisions
A recent survey of 200 business professionals shows that 70% of work projects require collaboration with different teams, different departments and even outside contractors. Setting up your space in a way that encourages collisions between different teams is an important way to combat that separation. Coffee bars, game rooms or even war rooms for decision-making work effectively for this. Consider a relatively shared open space for desks while still providing breakout rooms with different vibes when employees need to get away — no private offices needed.
3. Support outside-of-work activities
According to a recent Gallup report, developing friendships and interconnectivity in the workplace can lead to a 50% rise in employee satisfaction and can boost engagement as well. Encourage team happy hours, conferences, running clubs and other extracurricular activities that allow for employees on different teams to hang out and communicate with one another.
4. Utilize team collaboration tools
Take advantage of Slack or Ryver for team communication. Whichever you choose, set it up in a way that allows teams to overlap and intersect. Slack, in particular, has been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds as a collaborative tool. For remote team members, Google Hangouts can be a lifesaver. Encourage the team to use these tools instead of sending an email, opening up more opportunities for genuine interaction.
5. Cut out the excess
On average, managers waste the equivalent of a full day every week on meetings, and many of those are simply unnecessary. If the function of a meeting can be accomplished with a simple memo, cut it. The same goes for meetings with no agenda or that work better as one-on-one conversations. Some meetings simply exist for managers to exert their power, and these must be avoided above all.
6. Get a meeting framework, and stick to it
Come up with rules around how meetings can be called, how they’re run, how agendas flow and how team feedback is collected after each one. My business uses rules from scrum agile working agreements and slightly modified processes from the “Modern Meeting” format.
7. Make meetings optional
When 39% of your team members are dozing off during meetings, they aren’t exactly making meaningful contributions to the discussion. If people don’t want to be there, you probably don’t want them there. It’s the meeting organizer’s job to market the meeting. Sell its importance to the team, and those who will provide real value will show up.
As your company grows, these little tricks will help you solve the underlying problem of communication breakdown by creating shared contextual understanding and reducing the need for formal meetings. And when the need for meetings does arise, the framework you have in place should make them far more productive. This should help you get back some of those 300,000 lost hours and redirect that time toward helping your company soar.