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Don’t you think the majority of meetings are a complete waste of your time? Meetings can also have negative effects on morale, productivity and motivation of your team. Can we get rid of these boring sessions and run more productive meetings? Yes we can. Here are the last three ways or tips companies are successfully using to achieve this goal. Use these tips and say “no” to unproductive meetings and wasting time of your teammates!
No.1-5 are in part 1.
No.5: Keep the meeting short
Let’s begin this second part of article on productive meetings by questioning the time. When it comes to the length of meetings, people have different opinions on the right dose. Many people believe that the longer the meeting is, the more topics you can discuss. As a result, people are willing to get together people for more than two hours. On a few rare occasions, it is longer. They think that this the way to running productive meetings. I think that this is flawed assumption.
My opinion is that the best way to run productive meetings is doing the opposite. We shouldn’t try to set record for the longest meeting in the history of humankind. The fact is that work usually expands to the time you scheduled for it. So, let’s say you scheduled 60 minutes for your next meeting. Then, chances are that it will take exactly 60 minutes, or even more. This is called Parkinson’s law. This law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Parkinson’s law and productive meetings
Let’ say that you have to finish project in two weeks. Then, it will really take you somewhere around two weeks. Well, chances are that you will slack of for one week and work like hell the last. This is also one of the reasons for so why college students can write their paper almost over night. The deadline for submitting the paper is literally behind the corner. We can apply this law as well on client projects or your side project.
Imagine your client tells you that you have last two days to finish the project. Otherwise, he will terminate the contract. It is almost a magic. You will be somehow able to finish the project and meet the deadline. Someone could argue that another reason for this feat is that you are in the flow or zone. This may be true. However, this is not important. The fact is that this law usually works quite well. It is so predictable, you can bet on it.
With this concept in mind, we should try to make meetings as short as possible. Just think about it. If this law works when you schedule more time for some activity, it could also work when you do the opposite. So, let’s assume your regular meetings requires about 30 or 40 minutes. Do you think you can squeeze it into just 15 minutes? Or, you can go 10x and reduce the length of your meeting to just three or four minutes. In general, your goal is to keep meetings to 15 minutes or shorter.
Let me give you a few examples of approaches to productive meetings from real world. The first example is from Yahoo! and its President & CEO Marissa Mayer. Marissa’s approach is to schedule meetings that take 10 minutes. I should mention that this is rather out of necessity than for pure productivity. Her daily schedule is already quite full so there is not a lot available time for meetings. Another example Percolate. At Percolate, the length of meetings is set to 15 minutes.
Give your people the permission to leave
The last and interesting example is my favorite SpaceX and Tesla. Both these companies are under management of Elon Musk. Therefore, this example illustrates his approach to meetings. Unfortunately, I don’t know the exact time. However, there is one interesting lesson. At SpaceX and Tesla, people are expected to leave the meeting. Well, they can’t just leave the meeting and go for a lunch or coffee. There is one rule for leaving the meeting they have to follow.
People can leave if they think that their time is better spent doing something else. In other words, they must have something more important to work on. Would you consider implementing the same option? Would you give your people the permission to leave the meeting and get back to work? I think that this can be a very good idea. How often you need to have all people on the meeting for the whole time? Usually, you don’t need to hold everyone in the room till the end.
When you get all information you need, you can let your teammates continue in work. Think about it. What’s the point of chasing productive meetings if you keep your teammates for no reason? This is a waste of their time. Imagine how much could they do if they could leave the meeting and get back to work. Think about it. Often, the key to productivity is to let your people do their work.
The perfect meeting length
We talked about meeting length of 30 minutes, 40 minutes and also 15 minutes. Is there some perfect or at least ideal meeting length? Yes it is, or might be. It looks like the number 15 is the golden mean we are looking for. Let me ask you something. Have you seen any TED talk? These talks are usually last for 18 minutes or less. There is a reason for that. What’s more, this reason is backed by science. Science says that 15 minute are best for our attention spans and brain limits.
In every second our brain has to take in new information and process it. This means that millions of neurons in our brain are firing and also burning energy. We don’t have abundant reservoirs of energy. This means that this firing will, sooner or later, cause fatigue and exhaustion. Human brain is relatively small in comparison to body. However, it accounts for approximately 20% of body’s energy demand. The more information we are taking in, the more work the brain has to do.
As the time goes, we start to fail to remember the information we hear and see. This is also why spaced learning is more effective for acquiring new knowledge. Many studies demonstrated that receiving the information in shorter amounts of time is better for retaining it. Paradoxically, if you ask people, they will often prefer getting the whole package at once. However, the science is clear. Our bodies require a large amount of oxygen, glucose and blood flow. When our brain has to handle more information these requirements go up.
Conclusion? The longer the meeting, the longer your teammates have to focus to process information. This require significant amount of energy. Sooner or later, they will become tired and start to lose attention.
No.6: Ban any electronic devices
This will sound a little bit weird from someone working on tech startups. Yet, I think that saying “no” to electronics can help you run more productive meetings. I understand that taking notes on your smartphone, tablet or laptop is more comfortable. Unfortunately, this is not the best thing to do if you want to remember the information. In a fact, it can be detrimental. One research showed that note-taking by hand is better for remembering and information recall.
In that research, researchers compared students taking notes on paper and using laptops. This research suggests that use of computer computer may interfere with the ability to remember information. The reasons is that when you take notes on computer, you just rewrite what other person said. When you write it down by hand, you often can’t write everything. People usually speak faster than you can write. Therefore, you have to listen and decide what’s important.
This is the key for forming new memories. You are actively engaging. What’s more, you are more likely to use your own words when you write something down. This helps you connect new information to knowledge and concepts you already know. As a result, you create new connections in your memory faster and with less effort. So, if you want to help your teammates remember more, consider banning electronic devices.
Electronic devices can be a distraction
Another reason for banning electronic devices is getting rid of distractions. Seeing people on meetings browsing the Internet, playing games or sending messages isn’t rare. We all know how easy it is to switch from note-taking app to browser. I guess that many of you have some experience with this way of “killing” the time. The problem is that this is not a way towards productive meetings. This is just another variation of multitasking and it is harmful.
If you quickly switch between two or more activities, you can’t completely focus on neither of them. When you can’t focus, your ability to remember and recall information drops significantly. This applies even to something so innocent as checking your phone. Let’s say you want to quickly check your phone for message during presentation. In other words, you have to switch your focus from presentation to your phone and then back to presentation.
The problem is that when you switch your attention, you interrupt the process of processing information. When you came back, your brain has to catch the point when you interrupt it first. This happens every time you are trying to multitask. You are interrupting one task and starting another. The more you do this, the more energy and resources your brain needs. The result is that you are more likely to become fatigued. This is why multitasking is bad for productivity.
This is also why electronic devices and other distractions are enemies of productive meetings. When you teammates try to pay attention to multiple things “at once”, their energy levels drop. Running productive meetings is mission impossible with energy-depleted team. It is, therefore, in your own interest to avoid any possible distractions. Don’t leave anything to chance. Take charge and ban electronic devices from your meetings.
No.7: Try stand-up meeting
There has been a lot of buzz around standing desks. Many startup and smaller companies are implementing these pieces of furniture. The goal is simple – improve health and productivity of your employees. There is no need to debate if standing desks are beneficial for health or productivity. We already know that. Why don’t we try to implement the same thing to run more productive meetings? If standing can help on one place, it can do the same on another.
This is why I want to suggest that you implement stand-up meeting. Forget the buzz about sitting being unhealthy. Ignore the statements such as “sitting is new smoking.” Forget all this and focus solely on running productive meetings. Stand-up meetings are not just meetings where everyone stands up. Stand-up meetings can help you achieve something more. This type of meetings can turn everyone into active participant, not just passive bystander.
Let’s be honest. It is usually the comfort zone of the chairs and table. This is what often prevents people from engaging in the meetings. When you can safely hide yourself behind the table, you feel much more comfortable. What’s more, you can also check your phone under the table or browse the Internet. The problem is when there is no table hide behind and no chairs to sit on. Then, you are forced to stay outside your comfort zone. Since you are already standing, starting to move is not as difficult.
Newton’s laws of motion and activities
You probably know the first Newton’s law of motion. If not, it states that object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant speed, unless acted upon by a net force. In other words, when you sit on a chair, you have to exert particular force to move your body. This is necessary to take your body from resting state to the motion. It is much easier and less energy expensive to stay on the chair. We can apply the same principle on standing and also being in motion.
Imagine you are already in motion. Then, you don’t have to exert the same amount of force and energy to sustain this state. Inertia will help you with it. Remember Newton’s first law: object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant speed. This is why is it almost always easier to continue in some activity than begin some new. For example, imagine two guys. The first one has been riding a bike for the last ten minutes. The second guy just came in.
For which guy it will be riding a bike easier and more comfortable? It will be easier for the first guy because he is already in motion. He has to exert only as much force and energy to keep himself going. The other guy will have a harder time. He will have to get on the bike and force it to motion. He will also have to warm up his muscles and get his blood flowing. All these processes are necessary and they will require certain amount of energy. Why am I giving you lecture in physics?
Stand-up meetings, laws of motion and discomfort
Think about the way you run your meetings. Do you want your teammates to move around through the meetings? For example, you may want your teammates to write on a board. You may want them to stick post-it-notes on the wall while brainstorming. In both cases, your teammates has to set their bodies into motion first. They have to stand up and move to the board or wall. I know that this is not the same as running the marathon. However, stay with me for a moment.
The main idea is that this switch between these two states is uncomfortable. We humans are created by nature to preserve energy. This is why we like to just sit down and do nothing instead of running few sprints. So, when you demand this kind of activity on your teammates you make them feel uncomfortable. And, guess what. People usually want to avoid any discomfort. This is often why in setting meetings are usually not full of voluntary activities.
One way to change this is to make uncomfortable situation comfortable. What I mean is to let your teammates adapt to new conditions. It is just like taking a cold shower. The first couple of seconds are the worst. Then, your body slowly starts to adapt to this new condition. When this happens, try to switch to hot water. Trust me, it is not comfortable at all because it is again new condition. You are again introducing something that is uncomfortable.
Standing meetings, blood flow, brain and creativity
When you let your teammates adapt to standing, it will become new comfortable. This will result in more productive meetings for two reasons. First, people will be more willing to actively participate in the meeting. Since they are already standing there will be much less resistance to walk to board. It will be less energy demanding for them to switch from standing to walking. In case of sitting, it would be more uncomfortable. The second reason is that when you are standing or moving, you are able to think better.
Have many times did you hear about people coming up with ideas on a walk? One of the reasons for that is that when your body is moving, your blood is flowing better. This also means that more blood will reach the brain and provide it with nutrients, energy and oxygen. The result of this is that your brain will work much better. As we discussed, it is easier to switch between standing and walking. What’s more, many people are not willing to stand on one place for a long time.
These people will usually start to move around. The result is again better working brain. Standing up also leads to greater excitement about the creative process. It allows your team to collaborate more easily. So, stand-up meetings may not be the key to productive meetings. If not, they are at least one steps closer to productive meetings than sitting meetings. And, in the worst case, you have nothing to lose. It is just one meeting and you can always revert back to sitting meetings.
Productivity as a side effect of discomfort
Don’t worry, I will not take you through another physics class. Instead, I want to give you one last reason for giving stand-up meetings a shot. We don’t have to debate about this fact. In case of the majority of people, that the longer you stand, the more uncomfortable you’ll get. This may not seem like anything that could move you toward productive meetings. However, it can. The idea is that he more uncomfortable everyone in your team gets, the quicker the meeting will go.
Imagine that you will announce stand-up meeting. The usual response is some resistance from the side of the team. The second response is that the whole meeting goes faster than usually. The reason is simple. Everyone wants to get back to his table and chair. Nobody wants to waste time and stand longer than is necessary. Smaller amount of time wasted, higher engagement and more creativity and energy. I think that this is worth a little bit of discomfort. What do you think?
Bonus tip: Reduce the amount of your meetings
In the first part, we talked about “two pizza rule” often promoted by Jeff Bezos. Jeff Bezos is well known for keeping the size of team working at Amazon very small. This is his way of running productive meetings. Trust me, it really works! Anyway, there is another fact we know about Bezos’s management style. He is constantly trying to reduce the number of meetings. When someone asked him on this, his answer was to only have meetings when necessary.
I personally believe that this is another tip worth implementing. I think that there is a very good reason for it. Imagine, just for a moment, what will happen if you reduce the number of meetings. Let’s assume that your team is used to running two, hopefully, productive meetings per week. One day, you announce them, from now on, there will be only one meeting per month. Many managers will probably get close to heart attack after reading this. Anyway, that’s not important.
What is important is that you will make meetings more rare and almost exclusive. Chances are that this will help you run more productive meetings just by itself. How could this be possible? Do you remember the Parkinson’s law? Let me remind it to you. Work expands to the time you schedule for it. How can we apply this on frequency instead of length to achieve more productive meetings?
Exclusivity as a gateway to productive meetings
I think that, by reducing the number of meetings, we can apply modified version Parkinson’s law to meetings. If you think about it, the number of meetings works in similar way as work time. Imagine for one more time that you reduce the number of meetings. Then, your teammates has to squeeze the same amount of topics to smaller number of meetings. Do you see why I think this is a great way to run productive meetings? Your teammates will not want to lose time.
When you announce meeting, they will want to discuss as many topics as they can. The reason is that they know that another meeting will be next month. In other words, if someone has something important, she had better find a way to discuss it now. It is similar to the example with college student or client project. When you reduce the timeframe, productivity usually skyrockets. I experienced this on my own skin on many occasions.
For example, let’s say that I have a couple of meetings through the day. However, there is also some client work, blog work and other business-related issues I have to get done. In these situations, it is almost unbelievable what one person can do in only a few hours before noon. If you have team of developers, tell them that you have to ship some feature in the evening. Trust me, you never saw anyone working so hard and be so productive.
My last suggestion for increasing the number of productive meetings is to reduce their amount to minimum. Make your teammate think about meetings as about something exclusive and scarce. There is no time to chit-chat or anything less important. Every topic must have pretty solid reason to be on agenda.
Closing thoughts on productive meetings
Congratulations! You’ve finished the second part of this article focused on running more productive meetings. In this part, we’ve discussed that it is better to keep meetings short, not long. We’ve also talked about letting people leave the meeting and the ideal meeting length. Yes, it’s approximately 15 minutes. After this, we discussed why it is better to ban electronic devices and take notes in the old paper-based way. Think about electronic devices as potential distractions.
The last but not least tip was about implementing stand-up meetings. There are many proven health and productivity benefits that come with standing. So, it may be a good idea to try to implement this in meetings as well. The last way to increase the number of productive meetings can be reducing their frequency. The idea is to make meetings look like something exclusive and rare. Then, your teammates will not want to waste time on things that are not essential.
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