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Meetings need their own job descriptions

A major source of stress in the workplace is wasted time. Interminable meetings seem to be the worst offenders. Some meetings can be incredible; but unclear agendas, late start and end times, and people who are invited just in case wreck it for everyone. Those things contribute to a well-deserved bad reputation for meetings.

Ironically, business relies on collaboration for everything, so meetings become the poisoned life-blood that the productive employees hate the most.

Giving your meetings a job description with clear outputs and a process for each can cut the time in half and actually make them productive. It’s a big piece of the four pillars of effective management. Let’s take a look.

What did you hire this meeting to accomplish?

If you substituted “expensive employee” for the term “meeting”, you’d want a pretty clear idea of that employee’s contribution. And with a handful of “expensive employees” in each meeting, you have a good reason to. So start by naming the meeting and stating what you want out of it.

Next, decide whether the existing agenda points are really needed. Can each be articulated as an output? For example, “Old Business” is not an output; if it means “All actions from last meeting confirmed to be done”, it can happen by email. If “Old Business” actually means, “admit again that work is not done”, you have a bigger problem to do with accountability among the team members.

The agenda points that actually matter, are likely to be decisions. The outputs will be actions or information. Or they might be creations, where several people build or define something that was not defined adequately before.

Your meeting’s Job description, then, should be stated as an overall output; lesser outputs; and the format each will be published in.

Lean for meetings

There’s a Lean Manufacturing principle called SMED (“Single Minute Exchange of Die”), that aims to minimize machine setup time. The basic premise is that most of the work involved in doing a setup is purely logistic, and can be done while the machine is running. A procedure is developed to ensure those steps are exposed, and then they’re executed during the machine’s running time. This way the operator can swap out the tooling in the least time possible, making setup look like a pit stop instead of a project.

The same principle can apply to meetings. Preparation work and reporting on tasks shouldn’t ever have to tie up an expensive team. Once you have determined what the meeting’s outputs are, ensure the meeting’s inputs are well-defined and have clear owners. Those owners must be held accountable to have their homework done beforehand, so the meeting can stick strictly to its purpose.

Shifting the paradigm

Cutting meetings down can be a hard sell. As with many things, you have to sell the benefits and the experience, not the concept. Start, then, by taking one meeting and revising it, and allow your influence to carry the day. There will be friction from people who are used to starting late, working on email, doing their prep work in the meeting room, etc. Address these things as they come up but keep coming back to the goal.

Reduce stress at work by freeing up people’s time where it’s wasted the most, so they can work on the things that really matter.