Meeting math (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Those who extol the virtues of small business often say that big businesses hold meetings to plan how they’re going to hold meetings.

Pretty funny stuff, huh?

I thought so too, until I attended eight half-day training sessions on group process dynamics and interaction management several years ago.

There’s some logic in doing this. In most big companies, employees attend a gaggle o’ meetings every week, so making meetings more productive pays off. When managers learn the basics – have an agenda; review old action items at the beginning and new ones at the end; look for non-contributors to conversations and actively seek their ideas – meetings will be more productive.

Running a meeting is as much a part of the manager’s basic toolkit as is a saw for a carpenter.

You can make your meetings even more productive if you follow the guidelines in this column. Warning: what follows requires sophisticated mathematics, and isn’t for the faint of heart.

Step 1: Cut the average number of meetings in half.

Here’s how you got into this mess. At some critical point it became difficult to call meetings because everyone’s schedule had become clogged with other meetings. What’s the logical response? Establish a standing meeting, so everyone will reserve time in advance on their calendars. The consequence: having too many meetings leads to more meetings.

Here’s what else happens: everyone spends so much time in meetings that they have too little time to get work done at their desks. The result: meetings become working sessions, not review sessions, leading to a need for … yet more meetings.

Then a pernicious effect sets in: Employees, and especially managers, lose the habit of time management. Instead, their appointment calendar manages them, and they go from meeting to meeting until the week has ended. Free time actually becomes a psychological threat.

Break this logjam. Encourage everyone to say “No.” It isn’t all that hard. Once you have 20 hours of meetings on your calendar, make appointments with yourself for the rest. Say, “Sorry, I’m tied up the rest of this week. How else we can handle this?” Or, “You don’t need me. I trust you to do the right thing.”

Now you can convert meeting work to individual work. Brainstorming sessions are a prime candidate, since psychologists have proven they rarely work anyway. Substitute a process where individuals develop ideas independently and e-mail them to a central “idea facilitator” who organizes them, eliminates duplicates, and publishes a consolidated list for independent review and evaluation, prior to a meeting to finalize solutions.

Step 2: Cut average meeting size in half.

This is simple. The bigger the group, the slower the progress. Two is best – you can bounce ideas off each other without having to wait your turn too much. Up to seven is okay. Ten is the maximum for anything other than a presenter/audience format.

So why do we have big meetings? Lack of trust. I won’t buy into any result unless I personally had a hand in its creation. All constituencies must be represented in the process or they won’t accept the conclusions.

Design each team to have the smallest number of participants possible while still containing the expertise needed to get the job done. Everyone else? Put them on a “Steering Committee” that meets monthly, or even quarterly, to review and comment.

These two simple steps – cutting both the number of meetings and their attendance – are simply stated. Achieving them will take commitment, vigilance, and strong leadership.

The benefit is awesome. In some companies, managers spend more than thirty hours each week in meetings. The program described in this column would cut that to less than ten. That’s twenty additional hours per week per manager of real work.

You could spend ten of them procrastinating and still be way ahead.