Imagine spending two full days each week just sitting in meetings. Oh, wait--you already do. And, a Bain & Company study found, most leaders rate more than half of these get-togethers as ineffective. Yet the calendar creep continues: "The percentage of time an organization collectively spends in meetings has increased every year since 2008," says Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain and co-author of Time, Talent, Energy. When Mankins and his partners dove deep into this issue, they found the average manager spends just 6.5 hours a week on real work. "But when leaders treat time as a scarce resource," he explains, "they can liberate as much as 40 percent of unproductive time for executives and employees." Here's how to set your company's schedules free.
Look at last week's calendar and tally up how many hours you warmed a conference-room chair. Then categorize: How many meetings should never have been scheduled? How many were fine but didn't need you? How many did you convene? "When your schedule gets out of hand, less than half of it is under your direct control," says Mankins. "It's typically a symptom of some deeper organizational pathology, and you have to deal with those causes." That means having a frank talk with your team about trimming the fat on everyone's overstuffed calendars to free up the company's greatest resource: time.
Remember the Rule of Seven
When it comes to the invite list, more isn't more. Beyond seven attendees, every person added to a meeting lowers the odds of making a swift and strong decision by 10 percent. Yet the size of most meetings keeps spiraling higher. "There's a sense of status to being in meetings all day--it must mean you're very important," says Mankins. Even if a culture dictates stadium-size meetings, you can buck the trend. Mankins tells of a government meeting of 60 people. As an icebreaker, the leader suggested that the attendees introduce themselves and explain why they were there. "By the 10th intro, people weren't waiting to be dismissed," he says, and the meeting was quickly culled to the dozen or so who needed to be present. Consider such a tactic for any overstaffed meeting, Mankins advises.
Put Approvals in Place
"Most organizations place very few restrictions on who can call a meeting," says Mankins. He points to a large manufacturing company that realized a 90-minute weekly meeting autopiloted by midlevel managers--and scheduled by an assistant--cost more than $15 million annually in wasted time. That assistant effectively invested "$15 million--without a supervisor's approval," he says. At another company Bain worked with, any meeting that's going to exceed 90 minutes or include more than seven people requires the sign-off of a supervisor's supervisor. That simple guardrail saves the company as many work hours as 200 full-time employees would log in six months.
Practice Good Meeting Hygiene
For starters, be on time. "If every hour-long meeting begins five minutes late, that costs a company 8 percent of its meeting time," Mankins points out. Next, outlaw checking phones and email. Such activities have been shown to lower functional IQ by 10 points--which is, by some measures, about twice the impact of smoking marijuana. And insist on circulating an agenda beforehand. Roughly one-third of all meetings lack agendas, and only 29 percent of schedulers distribute a written plan in advance. "A clear agenda tells people which meetings they can safely postpone or ignore," says Mankins.
Create a Time Budget
People are mindful when they spend a limited resource, but they may not understand how scarce an organization's time is. Make that clear by setting a time budget: Any new regular meeting must be "funded" by killing an existing one. Alan Mulally brought that approach to Ford. When he became CEO in 2006, the company's top 35 execs were gathering each month for five straight days of rote meetings. Says Mankins, "Mulally essentially said, 'We're not going to spend any more time on meetings.' " He didn't attack that meetings week directly, but the slog suddenly grew much more productive as execs started using it to focus on more pressing initiatives. Without the guideline, these new meetings would have just been added to everyone's calendar.
Know When to Pull the Plug
If your company's calendar defaults to hour-long meetings, change that now. "If the schedule calls for 60 minutes, most companies' meetings almost always last the full hour, whether they need to or not," says Mankins. "That's crazy." Set the default for 30 minutes so a longer gathering requires an active decision. If things seem to be winding down after 20 minutes, end it early. (Your workers will thank you.) At Apple, Steve Jobs would pull the plug as soon as a meeting's productivity nosedived, or if people came unprepared. Harsh? Perhaps. But he stopped time from being wasted--including his own.