The NFL's San Francisco 49ers have revamped their meetings, hoping to boost the engagement levels of their young player-employees.
Meetings used to go as long as two hours. Now they are broken into 30-minute blocks, each followed by 10-minute breaks. These breaks, 49ers coach Jim Tomsula told the Wall Street Journal's Kevin Clark, allow players to "grab your phone, do your multitasking and get your fix." In addition, the 49ers added digital enhancements to their playbooks and started sending scheduling alerts to the players' digital calendars (instead of relying on printed-out schedules).
Whether the changes help the team win any games is tomorrow's question. For today, you should know that 49ers' new techniques are comparable to those deployed with success at Mint.com, VaynerMedia, and Dropbox.
The 15-Minute Rule
It's only logical that a meeting should be no longer than it needs to be. Employees of all stripes--not just young football players--never want to feel as if they're trapped all day. By capping segments at 30 minutes and providing 10-minute breaks, the 49ers are making meetings feel like less of a two-hour trap.
For many startups, placing time caps on meetings in order to free up employee schedules is an integral part of the culture. For example, Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint.com and Fountain, caps his daily, all-hands, pre-lunch meetings at 15 minutes.
In addition, Patzer's startups hold a once-weekly meeting focused on their product. This meeting is not capped at 15 minutes, but it's limited to discussing the product.
The result? Employees' calendars stay open. On four of five weekdays, there's just the one short meeting, before lunch. On the day of the product meeting, no one wastes time talking about non-product subjects. "Everyone's schedule [stays] relatively free because of that," says Patzer in an Inc. interview.
Another entrepreneur with a preference for short meetings is Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder of VaynerMedia. He, too, caps meetings at 15 minutes. "People will fit 10 pounds of crap into a 10-pound bag," he says in a video. His point is that if you block out 30 minutes for a meeting, employees will find ways to fill it with fluff. Limit them to 15 minutes, and they'll cut their airy banter.
The Millennial Factor
One reason for the 49ers' changes is Gen Y. The average age of last year's roster was 25.2. This year's squad will likely be younger, thanks to the usual influx of rookies via the NFL draft. One rookie, 21-year-old linebacker Eli Harold, "plays so much of the soccer videogame FIFA that he put his online gamer username on Twitter so that fans could challenge him," Clark reports.
What's more, the team is facing the departures of several high-profile veterans, including running back Frank Gore (age 32) and linebacker Patrick Willis (30). Another significant loss was former head coach Jim Harbaugh, who left the team after four seasons.
These departures gave the team and new head coach Jim Tomsula, a chance to reinvent the culture. So the team "consulted with experts ranging from Stanford University researchers to advertising executives to learn how, exactly, the young brain works," writes Clark.
In this context--a culture change and a youth infusion--it's easy to see why the 49ers (on top of restructuring the meetings) started sending alerts to players' digital calendars instead of continuing to use a printed schedule. "We haven't handed out a piece of paper to a player this year and they love it," Tomsula told Clark.
Countdown to Armeetingeddon
It all sounds so logical. The only wonder is: Why doesn't every organization revamp its meetings? Alas, the sad truth about meetings, even in high-tech cultures, is that they are often wastes of time--vestiges of inefficient habits from a bygone era lacking collaborative technologies.
One example is Dropbox, the renowned cloud storage company. You might think a tech company specializing in cloud storage would be at the cutting edge of meetings efficiency. But as Rebecca Hinds and Bob Sutton detail in their fantastic story about Dropbox's meetings culture, the problem was severe: some engineers were spending more than half their time in conference rooms.
"Employees complained that meetings were too numerous, too long, crowded with people who didn't belong there, and often pointless," they write.
So in August, 2013, Dropbox's leaders sent a company-wide email with "Armeetingeddon has landed" in the subject. The message announced that all recurring meetings had been erased from employee calendars. The leaders banned anyone from rescheduling meetings for two weeks.
The point of the two-week cleanse was to begin anew: To make sure meetings were no longer a lazy default for group communication, but instead were fast and task-focused. The company developed a new set of meeting mantras. One of them was to schedule meetings only if other methods of communicating--chat apps, collaborative tools--couldn't get the job done.
This notion--using technology to shorten meetings--is clearly one that the 49ers, too, have embraced. For example, it used to be that players had to wait for team meetings to watch practice film. But now, players can download practice footage to their tablets before meetings. Likewise, the playbooks now include video of plays attached to the actual diagram of the play. "This is what they expect, instant information," quarterbacks coach Steve Logan told Clark.
Armeetingeddon forced Dropbox to think critically about its meetings. Now the 49ers are doing the same thing. Whether it pays off in winning games, only time will tell. Meanwhile, you can applaud the effort to critique the culture. "Asking why we do something matters," observe Hinds and Sutton. "Asking why we still do something can matter almost as much."