Social Strategy

A Case for Meetings – If They’re Engaging

Meetings are on the mind lately.

In June, I left IBM for SpotMe, who makes a mobile app designed to make meetings more interactive and engaging. As I’ve learned the industry and the players, I’m gaining appreciation for just how important meetings and events are. Throughout my career, I’ve helped plan various meetings, from small leadership conferences to large association tradeshows, but from my new perch, I’m learning so much.

Meanwhile, moving from a massive company to a small, nimble company with a start-up culture has been a bit of… a shock. In the very best way.

IBM’s work-from-home culture often meant 5+ hours of daily conference calls, sometimes with dozens (or occasionally, hundreds) of very passive listeners. No one was engaged,  and few interacted.

Now, I have fewer meetings – and they’re far more productive. They’re small, typically with just 2-4 relevant people, and everyone comes prepared. There’s no staring out the window or “multi-tasking;” rather, meetings are engaging, and even worthwhile. I’ve been forced to soften my anti-meeting stance!

I’ve recently encountered two very relevant pieces, which perhaps piqued my interest because I’m in the mist of a transition.

The first, an excerpt from Ken Segall’s Insanely Simple: The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success, recounts how Steve Jobs handled meetings to keep them moving and effective. In short, he relied on small groups of smart people, with an emphasis on the smallest possible gatherings.

Segall summarized this with three rules:

1. Throw out the least necessary person at the table.

2. Walk out of the meeting if it lasts more than 30 minutes.

3. Do something productive today to make up for the time you spent here.

While a bit hyperbolic, his point is dead on: if someone has no reason to be there, they don’t need to be there. In some companies, there’s a tendency to invite everyone (and their mother) to make sure no one feels left out. But with every person you add, the meeting grows less nimble and it’s harder to make decisions. Jeff Bezos has a slightly viral rule about meetings: if two pizzas can’t feed the participants, you have too many people

A recent HBR IdeaCast expanded on this point, with data to boot. Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain, explained how time is a company’s most valuable resource, going on to explain how to make the most of meetings. He pointed to technology as an enabler of bad habits. In the past, setting up a meeting required working with administrative assistants and participants ahead of time just to get things scheduled. Today, anyone can view their colleagues’ availability and request as many meetings as they like. Plus, Outlook has changed the default meeting length from 30 to 60 minutes, making it too easy to invite too many people to meetings that run too long.

Mankins also shares research about the “Rule of Seven,” which shows that once you get beyond seven participants, every additional person decreases a meeting’s effectiveness by 10%. When you get to meetings of 15, 20, 100 people…well, you can do the math. I’ve found this to be very true.

So, how can we have more meetings with a purpose? Do you have your own strategies for making meetings better?

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