Sounding Board: Breaking the meeting addiction

How much does it cost to bring everyone together? There’s app for that.

By Len Lewis

So, you’re sitting at another meeting and the CEO leans forward and asks bluntly:  “How much do you make?” You answer nervously and he proceeds to enter the number into his laptop. Don’t start updating your résumé. The issue is not how much you cost, but how much ineffective and unproductive meetings are costing the company in time and money.

This isn’t a fiction. I know of several software programs that do these extrapolations. The results are not generally pretty and putting a hard blue pencil—as we called copy editing back in the day—to these get-togethers will make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially as we enter what some refer to as the “meeting season.”

The fact is that corporate meetings—everything from boardroom bombast to less formal gatherings with store managers—are business staples and valuable ones at that. How many meetings do you think took place before Wal-Mart decided to consolidate global sourcing or when Target decided it wanted to be Costco?

Unfortunately, meetings have also become sacred cows for many companies, something that increases exponentially in frequency and time when business flattens or declines with little regard for productivity.

Someone once said that people who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything. Yet some people have created a career promoting the idea that endless hours spent sitting around a table, punctuated by lunch, bathroom breaks and irrelevant schmoozing by participants, will somehow result in brainstorms that rank right up there with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

But the opposite seems to be true. According to a study by MCI Communications, more than 50% of meeting time is wasted—a seriously unproductive use of high-priced talent considering that professionals can attend nearly 62 meetings per month, according to the report. Granted, MCI may have an agenda here. But think about how much time you’ve spent in meetings or getting to and from them. And the major accomplishment was an agreement to have more meetings. We’ve all been there and far too often.

By this time you might conclude that I’m anti-meeting, or at least anti-airport. Not true. I am enthusiastic participant, facilitator and booster of purposeful face-to-face communications. There are times when telephone calls and emails will suffice. But there’s nothing more maddening then an endless string of e-mails that only result in more miscommunication.

But there are rules for planning and running productive meetings that solve problems and increase motivation by participants instead of having them run for their BlackBerrys.  There are some pretty creative ideas out there. I recently read about an advertising firm that hands out water guns and encourages people to squirt anyone who passes a negative comment or criticizes someone else in the room.

Another company hands out crayons and construction paper and encourages quiet time for people to come up with innovative customer programs. And we’ve all seen the team-building exercises that utilize everything from charades to scavenger hunts. Certainly, these are more animated and fun than a PowerPoint presentation or flip chart. But do they accomplish what needs to be done?

At its core, a meeting should be designed around promoting company growth. But you can’t do it without motivating the individuals involved.

Here are some suggestions for making the most of meeting time:

  • Plan a detailed agenda in advance to avoid wasting time.
  • Start and end the meeting on time. Don’t penalize those who arrive promptly and reward those who are consistently late.
  • Choose a facilitator or meeting coordinator to keep the group focused and who is not necessarily a participant.
  • Discourage consistent naysayers.
  • Encourage productive feedback and sharing of best practices. Walt Disney said it best: “No idea is a bad idea.” This is from a man who created a dynasty with a mouse.
  • Bring together groups from different segments of the company. Where is it written that an IT person can’t come up with a good merchandising idea?
  • Limit the time allotted for individual presentations so as not to send everyone into a coma.
  • Don’t go overboard on team building games. You’re running a meeting, not hosting a kegger.

The old saw that “time is money” remains true. But as a new, more colorful maxim notes: “Use it or lose it!”

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

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