Improve Meetings and Stop Wasting Time

Managers and executives often have the sneaking suspicion that they do not spend their time effectively. Instead of focusing on the large, strategic initiatives designed to drive the business forward, they spend their time on smaller, tactical, and even insignificant tasks. Michael Mankins, in the Harvard Business Review, reports on research undertaken by The Economist Intelligence Unit. A survey was conducted with executives (the CEO, COO, CFO, business unit presidents, managing directors, and so on) from 187 companies worldwide with market capitalizations of at least $1 billion to see how they spend their time, specifically time devoted to team meetings. Despite the geographic and industry diversity, the findings were strikingly similar. Here are the main findings:

  • Top management teams spend relatively little time together. These executives at most spend an average of 21 hours a month together in leadership team meetings. Moreover, the time spent in a single meeting was also short, seldom more than four hours at a time. Companies with widely geographically dispersed executives spent even less time together.
  • Agenda setting is unfocused and undisciplined. Since executive teams spend so little time together, meeting agendas are critical in making the most of that time. In fact, however, most agendas result from the crisis of the moment or historical precedence (i.e., “doing what we’ve always done.”) At about half the companies, executive team agendas do not vary from meeting to meeting. Less than 5% of the companies surveyed had a rigorous and disciplined process for developing agendas that focused top management on items that build value. The result is that urgent matters crowd out the strategic, meetings run late, and everyone leaves the meeting frustrated and without addressing key strategic issues.
  • As a result, strategy suffers. If executives do indeed spend 4 hours a month in team meetings, only 20% of that time – less than one hour – is devoted to discussions that add to the long-term. As a result, reports Mankins, “top management delegates many of the company’s most important issues to lower levels in the organization—to individuals ill-equipped to deal with the problems’ underlying complexity and poorly placed to see the larger ramifications of their decisions. Such decisions often conflict, as a strategy chosen by one unit works against the strategy chosen by another, slowing execution and undermining performance.”
  • The purpose of the meeting is unclear. Most leadership team meetings are for “information sharing.” If the executive team is going to discuss strategy, they do those in off-site brainstorming sessions. Very few of the executives surveyed (only 12%) believed that their top management meetings consistently produced decisions on important strategic or organizational issues. Further, even when these meetings do produce strategic direction, organizations have difficulty making them stick once the meeting is over and everyone goes back to their daily operations. Without appropriate communication to their troops, they issue a silent veto on the management directives.

How to Stop Wasting Time

All is not lost – executive teams can learn to run better meetings that produce actionable strategic direction. Here are seven tips for meetings that grow your company’s value:

  1. Deal with operations separately from strategy. Understand that strategy and operations are different, and schedule meetings for each separately.
  2. Decisions, not discussions. Set the agenda accordingly. Some firms find it useful to distribute information ahead of the meeting, very clearly marked whether the information is being sent to prepare leaders for debate, decision, or just for information only.
  3. Measure the real value of every item on the agenda. Knowing the quantitative value of each agenda item makes it easy to allocate the appropriate time and discussion to those that drive value, rather than just take up time.
  4. Take issues off the agenda. Companies that want executives to focus on growing value will take time-wasting items off the agenda. Additionally, each item on the agenda must be accompanied by a sound process for resolution, including deadlines, how decisions will be made, and by which executives.
  5. Evaluate real choices. Leaders can only decide among real alternatives. Hypotheticals and pie-in-the-sky suggestions should be vetted before the decision gets on the agenda. A good rule of thumb is to strive for three real, actionable alternatives for each strategic decision.
  6. Adopt common language and standards. A common language, methodology, and set of standards for making decisions let executives comfortably address issues quickly and definitively.
  7. Implement decisions. Once leaders make a decision, it should be documented, communicated into tangible goals and direction, and implemented. This forces executives to be clear on and agree to what the decision is, leaving little room for reinterpretation.

Executive time is one of your company’s most precious assets. Focusing leaders on strategy and driving value makes the most of their time. Better meeting management can help you make the most of this important resource.

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