It's one of the top requests for help I get, over and over again, from leaders of growing companies. They reach out when productivity seems to have suddenly plummeted for no identifiable reason.
After walking through dozens of these scenarios, I can pinpoint a single, common thread that rears its ugly head almost every single time.
Your company is going to run exactly like you run your meetings.
Bad meetings are hard to spot. They're actually cleverly disguised as very professional affairs -- smooth, efficient, corporate. But most of the time, what's really happening is those meetings are slowly and silently leaking organizational productivity, as the series of endless, purposeless meetings start to replace teamwork, real-time communication, individual milestones, and even actual work.
Corporate meeting culture sneaks up on you.
When I take a new adviser role for a startup, one of the first things I do is sit in on a management meeting. Within five minutes, I can usually spot the source of most of the organization's productivity problems, and it's usually within that room.
At larger organizations, bad meeting culture trickles down into every area of the company, sometimes on purpose, and what was a vibrant, fast-moving, hard-charging machine becomes a bureaucratic slog.
Don't get me wrong, meetings are always a necessary evil in every business organization, and there is no avoiding them. What's more, I've been through several "no-more-meetings" experiments, and in every case, the cure was worse than the disease.
But whether you're sitting in a couple meetings a week or several meetings a day, every growing company risks inadvertently adopting a corporate meeting culture. And it usually happens when you're trying to solve those inevitable problems that come with growth.
Avoid these common meeting mistakes.
Corporate meeting culture sneaks up on a company when company leaders are either trying to emulate the corporate meetings they're used to or are actively trying to create a corporate-style meeting culture because they don't know they don't have to.
These mistakes are more than procedural errors, they speak to the very nature of the meeting itself. Any one of them on its own might not sap productivity, but combined, they start to create a culture of seeming rather than doing.
Don't confuse a meeting with a working session.
A working session takes the place of actual hands-on collaboration and has a defined goal, at which point the working session ends. Thus, a working session doesn't have an agenda, scheduled breaks, an administrator, or even a set end time. Don't turn a working session into a meeting -- especially a recurring meeting, as that essentially guarantees that progress happens only a couple hours a week and stops when the meeting ends.
Don't appoint a leader.
A meeting leader implies a one-to-many communication stream that kills the very purpose of the meeting -- group-wide contribution. Rather, select an administrator who can enable discussion instead of lead it. This is someone who can ask questions, solicit input (even argument), avoid getting into the weeds, and take notes.
Restrict the time to a half-hour for regular meetings, an hour for long meetings.
Compressing the time eliminates small talk, pressures tabling deeper discussion to actual working sessions, and reduces the cost of the meeting itself.
To figure out the cost of a meeting, guess the hourly equivalent of the salary of everyone in the room, then triple it. That's the minimum you should expect as a productive return on each resource. Your average two-hour management meeting can actually cost your company thousands of dollars.
Limit the agenda to issues and questions.
An agenda doesn't need a recap of the last meeting, it doesn't need a post-mortem at the end of this meeting, and it doesn't need a review of what happened between meetings.
One of the greatest killers of productivity is using meeting time to catch people up so they can be useful during the actual meeting time. This is usually a problem of lack of preparation -- either from the person who created the meeting or the unaware person attending it -- or a result of having the wrong people in the room.
And on that topic...
Make sure everyone is absolutely necessary.
For everyone in the meeting, ask if they need to be there or if they can get by with reviewing the notes.
Don't go around the room.
In-person meetings are the most expensive and least productive way to make everyone aware of status. They also tend to turn into public relations sessions for the people who are speaking. When this happens, everyone stops listening.
Zoom is making bad meeting culture worse.
Over the past 20 years, I've worked exclusively with and for startups, including a couple startups of my own. Those companies all adopted remote work long before the Great Resignation, and they were using Zoom (and other flavors of online meeting software) long before the pandemic made online meetings the only option.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Zoom meeting features are built to enable bad corporate meeting behavior. From designating meeting leaders to hand-raising to sidebar chats, and on and on.
Remote work and Zoom meetings aren't going away. Ever. The pandemic just forced an acceleration of a trend that was already happening.
I can remember when it wasn't a requirement to bring a laptop to a meeting; now it's a requirement to always have Zoom available. Do what's comfortable for your company when it comes to rules for Zoom meetings, but don't let them turn a meeting into an hours-long, one-to-many, screen-sharing status update.