If you're human and working, you probably have at least one standing meeting each week, if not 12. Recurring staff, status, or work-planning meetings are presumed to be necessary, so they're prevalent. Or maybe it's the other way around?

Either way, there are a lot of them, and you probably go into each one with low expectations for accomplishing anything important. If you're like me, you might be planning to joke around with your co-workers and then tune out until it's your turn to talk. Oh, and if there's food, you'll snag a bagel too. Aside from a couple of laughs, a quick check-the-box update, and maybe a snack, recurring meetings hold little value.

All of us spend a lot of time in meetings and, of course, the idea that they waste our time isn't news. It's been studied here, here, and here. This time adds up to an estimated 50 percent of your day if you're a senior manager. Seeing the number totaled always makes me a bit queasy.

So you know you meet a lot, but believe the chances of outright canceling most or all of your meetings are pretty slim. The good news is that recurring meetings can be one of the most productive times of the week with simple changes to the agenda and expectations.

The single most important thing you can do to lead better meetings is invest the time in creating a variable agenda. It's unlikely that anything magical will happen with a set of topics that are the same from week to week. To do this, consider the following strategies.

  1. Eliminate any standing agenda items--including any broad categories (marketing, for example). Instead, focus on the top issues for the week that benefit from the team hearing progress made, hurdles encountered, problems requiring input from multiple perspectives, and decisions outstanding. The agenda itself then becomes a clear reflection of management's priorities. And, yeah, the same person needs to be responsible for creating that agenda and that should be the host or the boss.
  2. Skip any topics that are purely informational and find another way to get the word out. Meeting topics should be strictly reserved for items of common interest requiring input or discussion from the group.
  3. Draft a fresh set of operating "rules" that discourage two annoying behaviors that take up time and add little value to the discussion--sharing examples (unless asked for clarification) and amplifying another person's point.
  4. Never go "around the horn." The problem is that people will share a wee bit of news because they're expected to say something. Topics brought up rarely have relevance to other participants. If someone has something to discuss, they need get in on the agenda beforehand or schedule their own meeting to discuss.
  5. With a variable agenda, the time required to get through the topics will vary too. If it's a light week, either cancel or reduce the duration down to 10 or 15 minutes--whatever is required to hit the top items. Similarly, if intense coordination is needed, then go ahead and stretch it out.
  6. Foster a culture that allows participants to opt out if there are no issues of importance to that individual.

Structuring recurring meetings takes more work, but it pays off. The benefits are more employee engagement. Why? Because the leadership is recognizing the value of their employees' time by preparing in advance, focusing on priorities, and enabling people to get back to work as soon as possible.

We all share a frustration for wasted time in standing meetings. However, you can reclaim the agenda, increase the value of time together, and leave with more done with a few simple changes to your approach.