As an executive coach, I hear a lot of reasons why senior people can't get more done: everything from direct reports who don't take initiative, bosses who have unrealistic expectations, vendors who fail to deliver, and customers who want the world but don't want to pay for it. However, the number one reason that every single executive gives me--from the associate vice president to the CEO--is too many meetings.

Usually, these executives show me their screen with a calendar jammed with back-to-back commitments. And it's true, the fact is that the vast majority of companies have been overrun with meetings. Ever since Outlook invented the automatic invite, executives have been in a battle to control of their schedule and, unfortunately, most have been thoroughly defeated.

On an individual level, my advice is to take control by creating a "defensible calendar." By getting ahead of the game, creating a system for managing your day, and funneling requests and commitments into a schedule that works best for you, you can protect your time and create a schedule to fit your needs.

However, for companies who have developed a particularly dysfunctional culture of creating meetings at the drop of a hat, I have adopted a somewhat radical approach to addressing the problem. I like it because it focuses on creating a culture of developing systems that pull based on demand rather than trying to push. And while it's a bit different--even controversial--it's proven to dramatically shift meeting-making habits within every organization who has tried it.

The idea is simple. If people feel like meetings are overtaking their schedules, it means they are going to meetings when they don't really want to. The approach I propose gives that control back to them.

Here's the change I make: Every meeting is now optional.

If you don't want to go, don't go! If you have something better to do, go do that. Forget the meeting. You don't even need to let the person know you're not going to show up. Delete it from your calendar. Delete it from your schedule. Delete it from your mind. Done and done.

Why? Well, if meetings have become rampant, it's because the power has shifted from the meeting attendee to the meeting maker. This approach shifts it back. Rather than assuming that if I make a meeting, other's have to go, I now set the default to decline and I have to convince the meeting attendees to accept my invite.

What happens when you adopt this policy? Four important things:

Meetings with little to no value get canceled.

The first thing that happens is meetings that don't provide value get canceled. For one of two reasons: either the meeting maker realizes nobody will come once the meetings are optional, or nobody shows up and renders it moot. If a meeting doesn't provide value for the attendees then good riddance.

Meeting makers think twice before creating a meeting.

New meetings are less likely. Everyone becomes more careful about creating meetings and people find other ways to resolve issues and to make decisions. Too often, people default to creating a meeting when something needs to be discussed rather than just meeting one-on-one with the right people to get to a conclusion quickly.

Meeting agendas focus on creating value.

When someone creates a meeting, they think hard about the agenda. When meetings are optional, meeting makers need to create value and convince people to come.

By making sure they've crafted an efficient and well-designed agenda and have clearly communicated that agenda to invited attendees, they improve the meeting for everyone. People know why they are meeting, what will be covered, what will be decided, and how long it will last.

Meeting times shorten.

The fact is many meetings deliver value, but they simply take too long and waste too much time. Making meetings optional forces people to condense and streamline meetings to focus on the value-added content and trim everything else.

I've seen hour-long meetings shortened to half hour meetings and half-hour meetings shortened to ten-minute stand ups. Saving ten people a half hour is over a day of found time for the company. That's not chump change.

While implementing a meeting optional policy is not easy, it can have a huge impact on culture and behaviors. For most organizations it means fewer meetings, shorter meetings, and more efficient meetings. For a few, it means the same or even more meetings, but with dramatically improved value and focus.

Either way, this meeting optional philosophy changes the culture and gets people out of the dreaded meeting rut.

Published on: Dec 8, 2017
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