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How to Avoid “Black Hole” Meetings

iStock_000022262979XSmallWe attend meetings in the hopes of exchanging information and generating fresh ideas. But all too often, we emerge from such meetings dazed by the weight of useless data and demoralized by the waste of our time.

How can you avoid getting sucked into the black hole of useless meetings? Here are tips for planning and conducting meetings that actually produce value and move an initiative forward to its ultimate completion.

Make sure the meeting has a purpose. It’s nice in theory to call for meetings so that people can “check in” and get to know each other better. In reality, few businesses can afford to indulge in this activity. Every meeting should have a stated objective—something beyond what can be disseminated to your staff through a general email.

Invite people who belong at the meeting and leave everyone else out. Another flaw in the meeting process involves the attendance of individuals who have no good reason for being there. Knowing the purpose of your meeting should help you identify key employees whose presence will help achieve the meeting’s objectives. Leave everyone else out.

Create an agenda and don’t deviate from it. How many meetings do you attend (or lead) where time is spent on rambling, introductory comments and other time-consuming trivialities? A productive meeting includes an agenda, particularly one that’s been distributed to invited participants a day or two beforehand. Some meeting organizers suggest that, upon receiving a copy of the agenda, attendees are required to send a brief reply. This demonstrates that they’ve reviewed the agenda and thought about their own contributions.  Also, advance knowledge of agenda topics increases the chances of engaging attendees in a fruitful discussion.

Say no to electronic devices. What’s more frustrating than looking around the conference room while you speak and seeing everyone’s face buried in their hand-held devices? A ban on smartphones, tablets, etc., should be strictly enforced (this goes for the person leading the meeting as well). You and the other participants have to be present at the meeting or there’s no reason for having it.

Stick to the ground rules. A meeting where discussions veer wildly off-topic or get bogged down in irrelevant disagreements represents an opportunity lost. This can be prevented by taking some common-sense precautions:

  • Include an allotted time-schedule for each agenda item.
  • Appoint a time-keeper to enforce that schedule.
  • Ask each participant not to interrupt when someone else is speaking.
  • Announce that you (or the appointed meeting leader) will intervene if things get off-track.
  • Establish that important topics not related to the subject of the meeting will be included in the next meeting’s agenda (or addressed offline).

Be fanatical about time. When you say a meeting is scheduled for 3:00 p.m., be prepared to start it at that time. Consider imposing different “penalties” for those who show up late—anything from singling out latecomers with the question, “What crisis were you attending to that caused you to show up late?” to fining them $1 for tardiness.

Generally speaking, meetings that last longer than an hour place a terrible strain on busy employees. In an ideal world, most meetings should take no more than 30 minutes. By establishing and enforcing a few ground rules, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you can get people to say their piece, establish consensus and move your various growth initiatives closer to fruition.

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