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Breaking Bad (Meetings)

Posted by Brook White on Tue, Sep 19, 2017 @ 10:57 AM

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Ryan2.jpgRyan Bailey, MA is a Senior Clinical Researcher at Rho.  He has over 10 years of experience conducting multicenter asthma research studies, including theInner City Asthma Consortium (ICAC) and the Community Healthcare for Asthma Management and Prevention of Symptoms (CHAMPS) project. 

In Hamlet, Shakespeare posed the most famous existential question in English theater -- “To be, or not to be?”

If the Bard were to write a play for the 21st century office, he might ask a different, but no less poignant, question – “To meet, or not to meet?”

Few topics seem to elicit more workplace dread than the meeting. We tend to view meetings as disruptions, time sinks, resource devourers, and productivity killers. When someone says they “spent all day in meetings,” we don’t assume they got a lot accomplished; we assume their day was a bust.

Given the angst that seems to accompany meetings, we’ve been trying to rethink how we approach them at Rho. To help, we’ve been drawing inspiration from Deep Work, by Dr. Cal Newport. The premise of Deep Work is that our technology-driven culture is inadvertently inhibiting our ability to do focused, cognitively-demanding, high-impact work. Instead, our work is increasingly defined by fragmentation, interruption, and distraction, as we let our inbox and meeting schedule dictate the work we do.

Dr. Newport’s work struck a chord with us. Yet, we cannot escape the fact that our work requires the type of synchronous collaboration and context-rich communication that only meetings can provide. Here again we have an existential question: If meetings are so fundamentally important to our work, why are they so painful and disruptive?
Our honest take: We’re bad at them and we overuse them.

Most of us stink at meetings. We stink because we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that meetings are easy. We show up and talk about the same stuff every week for an hour. What’s hard about that? In reality, effective meetings require thoughtful planning and careful execution from leaders, as well as mindful preparation and active participation from attendees.boring_meeting.jpg

Calendar software has exacerbated our problem by making it too convenient to schedule meetings. Rather than stopping to think if a meeting is needed, or if our objectives could be accomplished in a more effective way, we schedule the meeting because it’s easy. The classic example of this is the status update meeting. If the whole point of your meeting is to go around the room and give status updates to your teammates – something that could be done via email or chat with far less disruption – you have created a zombie meeting, an undead horror sucking the productivity out of your colleagues!

Many of us also have the bad habit of scheduling meetings as a form of procrastination. Instead of trying to solve a problem now, we punt it to our next meeting. While there’s nothing wrong with deferring a difficult issue until you can discuss it as a team, swamping the agenda with our postponed to-do lists is certain to “zombify” a meeting. The especially painful result of this tactic is that instead of taking a few minutes to solve the problem on our own, we multiply the resource burden. A 15-minute task dragged into an 8-person meeting effectively becomes a 2-hour task.

So, what’s to be done to salvage meetings and make them productive and engaging? One approach that we advocate among both meeting leaders and attendees is to follow the FSB mantra to meetings: Fewer. Shorter. Better. Here’s some advice we recently provided to our employees about FSB meetings:

Fewer – The challenge here is to not merely cut meetings, but to cut intelligently.  

  • Leaders: Think critically before you schedule a meeting.  Do you really need it?  Can you accomplish your objectives in a better way? For recurring meetings, take a look a day ahead of time and decide if you can cancel it. 
  • Attendees: Think critically before you attend a meeting. Do you need to be there? Read the agenda. Do you know which topics pertain to you? What will you contribute or learn? If you are unsure, contact the meeting coordinator and ask.
One alternative to cancelling a meeting is to rethink your meeting format. Could updates be sent from email and the meeting cancelled outright? Would a brief stand-up meeting suffice instead of an hour-long time drain? What about a brief teleconference from your desk? wood-table-meeting.jpg


Shorter – Meetings are notorious for taking up as much time as you allot for them. When you have back-to-back meetings, this leads to meeting room overlap, frustration, and the domino effect of late-starting meetings. Instead, try the 25/50 rule: reduce 30-minute meetings to 25 minutes and hour-long sessions to 50 minutes. This provides buffer to conclude your meeting and head to your next engagement on time.

Better – The single most important factor for better meetings is being prepared. Not knowing why you are at a meeting, what will be discussed, and what you hope to accomplish is certain to create a poor meeting.

  • Leaders: Serve your attendees well by following the basics of good meetings: 
    • Have a goal
    • Think critically about who should attend
    • Provide context ahead of time
    • Stay on time and on task
    • Endeavor to engage everyone in the room

If you are struggling with these steps, try setting aside time to prepare for your meetings.  You may also find that you are leading too many meetings.  In which case, you should share the load (this is a great way to help train up more junior team members!)

  • Attendees: Don’t settle for bad meetings.  Speak up and provide helpful, candid, and constructive feedback.  But also, when you’re in a meeting, be a helpful attendee:
    • Request that items be added to the agenda ahead of time
    • Come prepared to address the sections of the agenda you’re responsible for
    • Avoid the temptation to commandeer or disrupt the meeting

Meetings don’t have to be a source of frustration or disruption.  To the contrary, meetings can be some of the most productive times of our day – where we solve problems, brainstorm, and find creative inspiration – provided we execute them properly.  

When is the last time you did a self-evaluation of your meetings?  If it’s been a while (or never), consider taking 15 minutes this week to think critically and creatively about your current meetings.  How can they be pared back, truncated, and refined to make them more effective and productive?  When done right, following the FSB mantra can do a lot to return some much-needed productive time to your schedule.

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