We waste so much time in meetings--on minutiae, micromanagement, or masquerading. Even more time is wasted in meetings that are pointless.

News flash: The exact opposite of meaningful is meaningless. That's what a wasted meeting is costing you (besides time and productivity you'll never get back): meaning. And that's why, when a prominent CEO weighs in on exactly how to kill useless meetings, we all should pay attention.

That's exactly what LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner did in his blog post six years ago, titled "A Simple Rule to Eliminate Useless Meetings." His advice is still making the rounds in people's inboxes (a friend just alerted me to Weiner's post recently).  

Weiner's golden rule is simple, but not always easy to execute well.

No more presentations.

Acknowledging that he was borrowing a page from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Weiner wrote: "At LinkedIn, we have essentially eliminated the presentation. In lieu of that, we ask that materials that would typically have been presented during a meeting be sent out to participants at least 24 hours in advance so people can familiarize themselves with the content."

Knowing that people won't always have read the material in advance, Weiner, like Bezos, also allots meeting attendees some time to read the materials at the beginning of the meeting. It might seem that starting a meeting in silence is strange, but it works. I've done it this way and it's powerful, as long as two things are true.

First, the materials have to be well-written. At Procter & Gamble (my former employer), the vaunted one-page memo was part of our culture. I learned that being forced to crisply put down your thoughts/recommendations/points actually made you think about the topic far more clearly. There's an art and a science to writing an effective one-pager. As Mark Twain said, "If I'd had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter."

The second thing that must be true for this method to work is that you have to allot a set amount of time for reading, and stick to it. This accomplishes multiple things: People will show up on time for the meeting so they don't get cheated out of reading time, and it reinforces the need for tight reading materials (there's a time limit for reading it, after all). If the materials are sent out in advance, even better--the "silent time" becomes memory-refreshing reading, as long as the preparer of the materials gets the pre-reading in on time to be distributed (which I've seen to be a constant battle).

Weiner says that after the quiet reading time, it's important to not let the writer of the materials launch into a pseudo-presentation (which is the tendency). Instead, it's time for questions, discussion, debate, and decisions. Even if it's a very well-written document, the decision might still be contentious, so this way time can be spent on questions and debate rather than on sitting through a regurgitation of repetitive or irrelevant slides.

Here are Weiner's other suggestions for better meetings:

1. Define the meeting objective.

It sounds so simple, but I can't even count the number of times I've seen a meeting derailed right from the get-go because some sidebar point was brought up (often by someone with his or her own agenda). I've always asked my team to write the meeting objective right at the top of the agenda.

2. Pick a driver.

Who is running the meeting? Only one person should be, and they should have thought through in advance exactly what they need from the meeting and how they'll prevent "overtalkers" and irrelevant points from blowing up the meeting.

3. Assign an informed note-taker.

This helps by creating something for the group to revisit later on, to avoid the "Rashomon effect"--different people interpreting different outcomes from the same meeting. The note-taker should primarily capture key action items, agreements, deliverables, and points of accountability, as opposed to acting like a court stenographer. As Weiner points out, it should be "someone who is well versed in the meeting's objectives and who has a clear understanding of context that can capture only the most salient points." 

We haven't talked yet about pushing to eliminate altogether meetings that don't need to happen. If you're a leader, be brave and question why a meeting is being called in the first place. Odds are you and everyone involved would be just fine (better off, really) by having half the number of meetings you currently do. Consider setting that as a target--as a starting point.

And as for the meeting that still has to happen--make it matter.

Published on: Jul 24, 2019
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