You probably know this feeling only too well: being stuck in a meeting that feels like a waste of your time. And you are not alone. In fact, ineffective meetings are a widespread problem in the corporate world. Professor Steven Rogelberg, the leading expert in meeting science, estimates that 50% of the time spent on managing and conducting meetings is unproductive. He calls meetings ‘an organisational blind spot’.1
Although today’s managers spend an astonishing 23 hours per week in meetings, unproductive meetings have become an accepted status quo.2 This meeting madness – a mix of unproductive and excessive meetings – has serious consequences. Salary costs are literally wasted, estimated at 65 billion Euros in Germany alone.3 And leaders who suffer from meeting overload and frustrations are more stressed, get sick more often, become less productive at work, and are much more prone to leave the company.
Despite these negative aspects, meetings are still a powerful instrument to ensure organisational success. As human beings, we need fruitful collaboration and a sense of community to thrive. Good meetings are places where trust grows and where team dynamics can be effectively managed for positive outcomes. They also ensure that all people understand the bigger picture to which their work is related. Exchanging information and opinions help individuals, teams, and organisations make the right decisions.
At Sherpany, we are committed to creating a world where every meeting counts. This is why we have developed an innovative framework to achieve effective meetings.
How did we do that? On one hand, we have worked with research produced by top scientists. In recent years, researchers from organisational psychology and behavioural science have identified meetings as a main instrument of organisational life and have put a lot of effort into creating high-quality studies. On the other hand, we have incorporated our own year-long experience helping leaders increase their meeting productivity. In countless interviews, we not only found the most pressing meeting problems but also identified effective ways how forward-looking leaders manage their meetings.
In our view, agility has the huge potential to untangle the complexity of today’s meeting processes and help overcome meeting madness. Agile practices originated in the software development community: classic planning approaches to management – the so-called waterfall method – turned out too slow for an increasingly complex and fast-changing environment. Today, organisations apply agile approaches in order to respond to changing market demands through fast decision and learning cycles as well as technology.
We applied some of the core ideas of agility to meeting processes. What resulted is a framework for managing formal leadership meetings in a more innovative and effective way – which we call Agile Meeting Management. A core belief of Agile Meeting Management is that all participants take responsibility in order to improve meeting performance. They all commit to clear agenda goals, respect other participants and their time, prepare sufficiently, and assign concise action items.
This article introduces the 10 core principles of Agile Meeting Management. They offer holistic and actionable recommendations that bring light to the ‘blind spot of organisations’ and eventually result in a real change in the meeting culture.
We see meetings as a key instrument for effective leadership.
What steps has your organisation recently taken to improve meeting performance? Despite the impressive amount of time meetings consume, there are very few organisations that actively shape their meeting culture. Many leaders see their meetings as a necessary evil of organisational life. Meeting madness has become the norm of a leader’s work life.
To fix the problems of today’s meeting management, a change in the way we perceive our meetings is necessary. Agile leaders see meetings as a key instrument for effective leadership that deserves more attention. Being a role model means to gradually implement more effective ways to manage meetings and improve one meeting at a time. Simultaneously, the entire organisation increases the level of meeting accountability, for example by naming a Chief Meeting Officer who is dedicated to own meetings. This person sets up a long-term strategy on how to measure and improve the meeting culture.
We base our collaboration on mutual trust and respect.
Throughout the meeting stages, people often lack trust and respect for other participants and their time. This includes wasting group time for topics that could have been solved otherwise – or arriving unprepared and late to a meeting. A growing research base shows that what actually happens in the meeting in terms of behaviours and interactions can truly ‘make or break’ the meeting.
Leaders encourage all individuals and teams to mutually establish a common understanding of how to ensure positive group interaction. During the meeting, ground rules help respect the psychological safety of all participants. When all attendees feel encouraged to speak up and all opinions are heard, biases in decision making can be reduced significantly.
We break agendas into specified stand-alone items with clear goals.
Meeting literature identifies a clear agenda as arguably the most-important factor for meeting effectiveness. Yet, although many leaders are aware of this fact, they do not apply it in practice: A survey of 180 Swiss business leaders found that less than half had defined a goal for every agenda item for their past meeting.4
The agenda is at the core of Agile Meeting Management. Leaders break meeting agendas down into specified stand-alone items with clear goals. Defining concrete agenda items allows us to plan the meeting deliberately. This helps us identify those topics that require specific attention before the meeting or could even be solved through email or other channels.
Clear goals for every agenda item set a precise direction for the entire meeting process and foster a focus on achieving these goals.
This also applies to pre-meeting activities, during which the agenda is constantly adapted depending on the progress made for every topic as well as changing priorities.
Here is an example of the aspects that are defined for each agenda item:
We participate only in agenda items to which we can meaningfully contribute.
Have you ever felt that your presence in a meeting was unnecessary? Being a meeting ‘spectator’ without a genuine stake in the treated agenda items is frustrating because you could be using your time for more value-adding work. At the same time, it becomes more difficult to keep up fruitful meeting interactions with such ‘spectators’. As a consequence, meeting performance decreases.
Contribution-based participation is a concept that reduces time wastes and increases meeting performance. The idea is that participants are only involved in the agenda items to which they can meaningfully contribute. During agenda creation, the owners of each agenda item identify the most relevant contributors and decision makers. This can lead to dynamic meetings in which some participants leave earlier while others join later. Although it can seem unusual at first, it is an effective concept if planned beforehand.
We prepare ourselves for the items to which we contribute.
Meeting participants either overestimate their level of preparedness or underestimate the time needed to prepare for meetings. A study shows that a third of all participants do not prepare for their meetings at all.5 Relying on printed pre-reads and not being able to securely access and annotate meeting documents on the go still makes meeting preparation a hassle for many leaders.
Agile leaders understand that thorough preparation is key to effective meetings. All participants receive the relevant meeting information and background materials in advance and adequately prepare themselves for all agenda items in which they contribute. This also means that they ask for clarification on the agenda, make annotations, and anticipate discussions on certain agenda items. By doing so, leaders reach a shared understanding of agenda topics and the most important challenges to tackle.
We collaborate with a focus on achieving meeting goals efficiently.
When was the last time a group discussion wandered off topic? Even the most well-thought meeting agenda is useless when attendees do not follow it and lose track of previously defined goals and times. In fact, getting off the subject is the most named meeting problem. Moreover, participants barely interact before the meeting.
Prior to the meeting, participants already collaborate by engaging in discussions on agenda items through technology. Agenda topics are moved forward, in some cases the set agenda goals are even achieved. When all participants prepare well and clarify controversial aspects needed for a decision, waiting until the meeting would only delay execution.
Through pre-meeting preparation and collaboration, basic information-sharing, questions, and non-controversial discussions can be avoided from taking place in the meeting itself.
During the meeting, participants focus on achieving meeting goals efficiently. All participants take ownership to reach the meeting’s goals. It is crucial to find the right balance between accomplishing the agenda and ﬂexibly accommodating questions, concerns, and side notes. People intervene when too much time is spent on irrelevant issues and interactions are based on mutual trust and respect.
We take minutes and assign clear and concise action items.
A formal meeting is only as good as the action it results in. Unfortunately, many leadership teams struggle to effectively define, assign, and record clear follow-up actions. Without any steps taken, the same item will be discussed again during the next meeting, further increasing meeting overload. At the same time, the creation, distribution, approval, and archiving of meeting minutes is cumbersome and time-consuming.
Participants close every item on the agenda with the definition and allocation of clear action items:
|How to define and allocate clear action items|
|What?||We define a specific follow-up action to be taken|
|Who?||We assign a person who takes ownership to accomplish it|
|When?||We determine a deadline by when the action should be executed|
Meeting minutes – including those action items – are always written and participants see them as the primary tool for ensuring timely and successful follow-up actions. The minutes are published and approved immediately after the meeting and made easily available for all people involved in a specific agenda item.
We give feedback to continuously improve our meeting management.
Does your organisation gather feedback about meeting effectiveness and leadership? The chances are low. And the leaders themselves do not give and collect feedback, because they assume that their meetings are going well. Meeting research shows that leaders rate the meetings they organise very favourably, whereas the other attendees rate them much less positive.6 Thus, they are less likely to solicit feedback and seek opportunities to improve.
Leaders base their meeting management on constant feedback loops in order to enhance performance during all stages of the meeting process.
This is in line with agile processes with their focus on rapid learning cycles and their orientation on performance and accountability. Participants not only give short feedback after every meeting but also regularly conduct retrospective sessions to see the big meeting picture. They jointly carve out room for improvement.
We train agile meeting management principles and processes.
Only around 20% of people have received formal training in how to conduct or participate in meetings.7 And the training they receive is in most cases very basic, including only simple suggestions. Thus, people do not understand the importance of meetings and how meetings should be managed to effectively reach individual and group objectives.
Leaders organise and participate in meeting management training. Agile Meeting Management offers a practicable framework to train people effectively. It is important to consider all four dimensions of effective meetings:
Strategy: We see meetings as a key instrument
People: We train people and base collaboration on trust and respect
Processes: We manage meetings effectively from the agile agenda to the feedback loop
Technology: We use technology to support our meeting processes
We use technology to support our meeting processes.
Leaders increasingly rely on technology for their meeting management. Yet, they often use a patchwork of multiple solutions that are not exclusively designed for leadership meetings. This requires a high level of manual administrative work, constitutes a security risk, and also reinforces some of the dysfunctional meeting processes outlined before in this article.
Agile leaders exhaust the full potential of technology to support their agile meeting management processes. They automate repetitive tasks and use templates. Big data and AI help us get insights on how much time is usually planed for a specific agenda item or integrate findings from meeting feedback directly into the planning of the next meeting. Dedicated technology facilitates agile meeting management, for example by requiring to break agendas into stand-alone topics with clear goals or by automatically planning contribution-based participation.
Implementing Agile Meeting Management offers three main benefits.
Save time by reaching meeting goals more efficiently
Agile Meeting Management has the huge potential to increase the productivity of our leadership meetings and liberate countless hours of previously unproductive meeting time.
We share with you a few examples of how Agile Meeting Management reduces time wastes throughout different meeting stages: Contribution-based collaboration frees us from attending meetings to which we cannot contribute meaningfully. Moving topics forward and eventually solving non-controversial agenda items before the meeting saves us valuable group time. Trust and respect as well as a focus on achieving clearly-defined goals for every agenda item makes us more efficient as a group. And by assigning and recording clear and concise action items, we lay the ground for the timely and successful execution of follow-up actions.
First experiences of innovative organisations who implemented Agile Meeting Management principles show that leaders can save several hours per week on meeting management. The CEO of a large manufacturing company estimated optimisations in meeting effectiveness and efficiency of approximately 20%.
Speed up decision making
Speed is essential when it comes to seizing opportunities and being successful in today’s quickly-evolving business environment. Yet, today’s slow and rigid meeting processes are not facilitating fast decision making.
Agile Meeting Management untangles the complexities of today’s meeting management. It helps us identify the necessary people to take effective decisions and ensures a more-focussed collaboration prior and during the meeting. The use of technology gives us continuous access to business intelligence and meeting documents. We do not have to postpone a decision due to a lack of preparation or access to information. We sometimes make decisions even before the meeting and always promote follow-up actions. As a consequence, we reach the execution stage of decisions and tasks much faster. This provides us with a competitive advantage.
Increase ownership and accountability of meeting outcomes
Implementing Agile Meeting Management means seeing meetings as a key instrument for effective leadership and organisational success. We share a common view of how to shape our meeting culture. We train all our people in effective meeting management to eventually make every meeting count.
We all take responsibility in order to improve meeting effectiveness. We all commit to clear agenda goals, respect other participants and their time, prepare sufficiently, and assign concise action items.
Meeting management is no longer a top-down process, but rather a collaborative process based on mutual trust and respect.
Giving meeting feedback and constantly learning from each other further increases meeting effectiveness.
At the same time, we increase the ownership and accountability for accomplishing action items after the meeting. Jointly defining and assigning concise action items and sharing them immediately in a transparent way will get the buy-in from the assignees. As a consequence, we execute meeting follow-up actions and progress as a team and individuals.
1 ‘Half Of All Meetings Are A Waste Of Time - Here’s How To Improve Them’, Forbes, 2019.
2 ‘Stop the Meeting Madness’, by Leslie A. Perlow et al., HBR, 2017.
3 ‘The state of meetings report: Consequences of poorly organised meetings’, Doodle, 2019.
4 ‘Erfolgreiche Meetingvorbereitung - Worauf kommt es an?’, by Isabelle Odermatt et al., Report Psychologie, 2013.
5 ‘Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice’, by Nicholas C. Romano and Jay F. Nunamaker, International Conference on System Sciences, 2001.
6 'Perceived Meeting Effectiveness: The Role of Design Characteristics’, by D. J. Leach et al., Journal of Business and Psychology 24(1):65-76, 2009.
7 ‘Half Of All Meetings Are A Waste Of Time - Here’s How To Improve Them’, Forbes, 2019.