Why Meetings Are Unproductive and 4 Strategies to Turn that Around

Have you ever finished a meeting and said, “Well, that was unproductive”? 

You’re certainly not alone. 

More than $37 billion is wasted per year on unproductive meetings (yes, that’s a “b”- BILLIONS of dollars just bleeding from company cash flow).

Before we search for the solution and take-charge of our time and productivity, we first need to ask ourselves, “Why are we so unproductive in meetings?”

Well, here are 3 things I’ve noticed over the past decade:

  1. Lack of focus. During any given meeting, at least a few participants likely have their laptops open and are doing other tasks. They may be performing seemingly mundane tasks such as checking emails, looking at the rest of their day on their calendar, or cleaning up their desktop screen. Many of us get trapped into thinking that taking notes on our laptop will makes more effective, but it’s very easy to get distracted and begin performing other tasks. Speaking of multitasking, if you’re checking emails or doing other work during a meeting, you may feel like you’re being MORE productive than if you were just sitting, listening, and participating in the meeting. However, I have found the opposite to be true. Those who fully commit to the task at hand (in this case, the meeting) end the task with more clarity and clear action steps. As for those people multitasking, well, they now need to spend time catching up and likely will send MORE emails because they did not get clear action steps, therefore losing out on productivity because they are out of the loop.

  2. Life happenings. Let’s face it, we’re humans. Life happens and, more times than not, we bring the ups and downs of it into our meetings. Even if someone is physically present and resisting the urge to multitask, most people still struggle with mental multitasking. Meaning, they might be running through their task list for the day, remembering what time they have to pick up their children from soccer practice, or thinking about their last meeting. Many of us are also guilty of planning what we will contribute to the meeting in our head. Next thing you know, we focus so much on our own talking points that we miss what other people are communicating. Listen thoughtfully when someone else is speaking so your time spent listening is productive time, and so you’re not left with questions afterward.

  3. There’s no agenda. It’s common for companies to have “standing” meetings so a group or a project team can stay in the loop with each other. These can be either productive meetings OR wasteful ones, depending on how the agenda is structured. If a meeting organizer sends clear status updates, an agenda, and assignments ahead of time (e.g. “read these updates before the meeting"), then participants will spend LESS time on status updates and MORE time on collaborating and brainstorming. That’s where the magic happens in meetings! Going into a meeting with no agenda (or a poorly structured one) has tension, drama, and inefficiency written all over it. So, if you have a standing meeting scheduled and there is no agenda with no specific items that MUST get done that day, cancel it! Don’t hold a meeting for the sake of meeting.

Now that we’re clear on what hurdles derail our meetings, let’s talk about the solutions to jump them!

I recently spent a morning with Dr. Ray Jorgensen. Dr. Ray has spent the last 30+ years helping organizations like State Farm, IBM, Time Warner, and several arms of the US Military and Government take their leadership, communication, and collaboration to new levels.

Dr. Ray shared many powerful things with me, but his four practical steps to an effective meeting resonated with me, so I want to pass them along to you:

  1. Start the meeting with a clear focus

    Specifically, every meeting should start with the following (in this order):

    • Context - what are we going to discusswhat’s the agenda?

    • Purpose - why are we meeting?

    • Outcome - what result should I expect after this meeting?

  2. Surface and temporarily clear obstacles.

    I’m not just referring to the tangible obstacles in the meeting space like donuts and cell phones. I’m also referring to the mindset. 

    Everyone in the meeting should check-in. Provide a safe environment for everyone to share anything going on in life – good or bad - that may interfere with the overall attitude and mindset of the meeting. This could be as simple as asking the question:

    Is there anything important going on that may get in the way of us having a productive 30 minutes?”

  3. Develop a common understanding.

    This is simply creating alignment with everyone participating in the meeting. Whatever the topic of conversation, make sure everyone understands and is clear about it. No assumptions.

    Most importantly, don’t try to be right. As Dr. Ray shared with me, “when you try to be right, you’re actually creating a learning disability in yourself.” 

  4. Commit to action.

    Everyone should leave the meeting with three things: specific deliverablesdeadlines, and a process for accountability. How’s that saying go... “things that aren’t written down are just wishes.”

What can I say…things just seem to happen when everyone is clear on what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and when there’s a process in place to make sure it’s getting done.

When is your next meeting? Can you commit to applying these four principles? I’d enjoy hearing about your experience.