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You are what you meet – tips from Google & Apple

Meetings are one of the most powerful and essential tools at all levels of a corporate business structure. They facilitate communication between team members or departments, allow management to get an all-points-bulletin of progress on current agendas, and comprise most of the company’s long-term planning. Life in most businesses would, in fact, be unimaginable without meetings. Yet the word is uttered almost as a curse by many who are made to attend them, and the more common meeting room pitfalls have been staple gags in comic strips and sitcoms since the 1990s.

This pervasive antipathy towards what is a relatively open and mundane process is generated by the prevalence of poorly structured, disorganised and flat-out unnecessary meetings that occur more because people understand meetings are important without considering why or how to make them effective. The most successful business people on earth, CEOs of all-powerful companies like Apple and Google, have had a lot to say in the past about how their companies make sure every meeting is a dynamo of productivity – we’ll share some of their wisdom with you today.

What’s on the agenda?

The number one most frequent complaint by meeting attendees is simple boredom. But a meeting should be focused, topical, vital; something those attending care about and feel connected to. One way to help make certain of this is to set a strict agenda for every meeting, and keep all proceedings related to its advancement. If you can’t make any further progress and the meetings are stalling, move to wrap it up.

Close the meeting with a clear direction

Similarly, when you are wrapping up the meeting you shouldn’t leave the attendees standing there rudderless after the discussion comes to a close. If something was important enough to justify meeting about it there are probably some immediate steps you can take after the meeting to act on what was decided. Before you leave, ensure each attendee understands the ramifications of anything discussed at the meeting and what they need to do afterwards.

Keep them strictly timed

Another way for meetings to lose that vital momentum and focus is if they start to stretch. This can particularly happen if the discussion doesn’t seem to be reaching a conclusion and nobody has a clear idea of how to end the meeting. Make it easier on yourself; have a fixed time limit for each meeting and always end them there no matter what. Google in particular swear by this, projecting a countdown onto the wall as a constant reminder that attendees are in the meeting to get things done, not fill time. At very worst you can always organise another meeting later to address what agenda points were sacrificed in this one, and use the meantime to work out how they could be better approached.

With great responsibility comes great power

It is both home truth and proven corporate fact that making individual employees responsible for specific areas of their business makes them more engaged in their work, harnesses their ingenuity and problem solving, and leads to higher workplace satisfaction. Bring this philosophy to your meeting structure; have a “DRI”—as Apple fondly abbreviates “Directly Responsible Individual”—listed on the agenda next to each item, and let them present that item to the meeting and research all the relevant information.

Always know who “The Man” is

This simple if slightly-archaic quote gets across an important precept for meetings; if you want to get things done you need to have a single decision maker. The reason this doesn’t read “know who your boss is” is that The Man (for want of a better term) is not necessarily just the highest ranking manager in attendance. If the meeting is held to decide the specifics of a new technology implementation, the most experienced and knowledgeable technician in the department might be The Man; a strategy meeting for a client’s marketing campaign could be presided over by the account manager for that client. Just so long as everybody knows who The Man is, and agrees that their word is final.

No extras, no groupies

For every additional person included in a meeting the less time each of them has to speak and the harder it is to give each of them a clear responsibility and role during or after. “Meeting creep” is very common due to a sense that missing out on the meeting could be a political exclusion or implies a lack of importance, but you should strongly resist the urge to include anyone who isn’t absolutely essential to the specific topic of that meeting. Expert studies suggest the upper limit for effective meeting sizes is 10 people. Keep that in mind when planning yours and have even fewer attend if possible.

Live in the moment

This isn’t just a greeting card caption; high-powered meeting callers the world over has recognised the basic importance of keeping people’s minds solely on the meeting they’re in. This seems like common sense but in today’s frenetic, information-rich business world people can find it surprisingly hard to stop thinking about everything at once and concentrate on one topic; set some hard rules to help them out.

Ban discussion of topics outside the meeting agenda and lock the doors once the meeting starts to prevent other parts of your business intruding for the duration. Better yet, follow the example of US President Barack Obama and tell people to leave their smartphones outside. Isolation from these devices can snap people out of deep multitasking habits and lets them know that you aren’t in the meeting to play around. Some attendees might fear being separated from the rest of their daily business for too long, but if you’re following our earlier advice about sticking to time limits then this becomes a non-issue.

Make time for recess

A simple tip to improve meetings without restructuring them is to think about the time after the meeting. Google and many other top companies have helped sweeten employees on meetings by giving them a block of paid free time immediately afterwards. The simple promise of relaxation keeps people focused, and these sorts of breaks have been repeatedly proven in studies to boost overall productivity by refreshing the mind. You have less to lose than you might think.

These tips, cribbed from some of the most powerful leaders in the world, help to refocus the idea of the meeting from a corporate cliché into the simple but effective decision-making tool it was always meant to be. Implement them all, and see how employees adjust to the idea that meetings can be invigorating rather than torturous. Still, there is a final meeting tip which is the most important one of all.

Have as few meetings as you can

Meetings are useful in many situations and a lot of development strategies and corporate schedules have them booked in at regular intervals. The temptation can be to hold a meeting every day, for every crisis, before every call to a client. The advice from the best: just don’t. Meetings take employees away from their work and don’t actually get anything done, so make yours fewer and more effective when you do have them. Also, pushing the philosophy that decisions can only be made in a meeting ties the velocity of your company to its meeting schedule, which is never a good move. Make sure you use the meeting for it’s intended purpose and your employees will surely thank you.


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