How to free your sched­ule—and your team’s—for the most im­por­tant and pro­duc­tive gatherings

Inc. (USA) - - DEPARTMENTS -

IMAG­INE SPEND­ING TWO FULL DAYS each week just sit­ting in meet­ings. Oh, wait—you al­ready do. And, a Bain & Com­pany study found, most lead­ers rate more than half of th­ese get-to­geth­ers as in­ef­fec­tive. Yet the cal­en­dar creep con­tin­ues: “The per­cent­age of time an or­ga­ni­za­tion col­lec­tively spends in meet­ings has in­creased ev­ery year since 2008,” says Michael Mank­ins, a part­ner at Bain and co-author of Time, Tal­ent,En­ergy. When Mank­ins and his part­ners dove deep into this is­sue, they found the av­er­age man­ager spends just 6.5 hours a week on real work. “But when lead­ers treat time as a scarce re­source,” he ex­plains, “they can lib­er­ate as much as 40 per­cent of un­pro­duc­tive time for ex­ec­u­tives and em­ploy­ees.” Here’s how to set your com­pany’s sched­ules free. — KATE ROCK­WOOD

SELF-AU­DIT –

Look at last week’s cal­en­dar and tally up how many hours you warmed a con­fer­ence-room chair. Then cat­e­go­rize: How many meet­ings should never have been sched­uled? How many were fine but didn’t need you? How many did you con­vene? “When your sched­ule gets out of hand, less than half of it is un­der your di­rect con­trol,” says Mank­ins. “It’s typ­i­cally a symp­tom of some deeper or­ga­ni­za­tional pathol­ogy, and you have to deal with those causes.” That means hav­ing a frank talk with your team about trim­ming the fat on every­one’s over­stuffed cal­en­dars to free up the com­pany’s great­est re­source: time.

RE­MEM­BER THE RULE OF SEVEN –

When it comes to the in­vite list, more isn’t more. Be­yond seven at­ten­dees, ev­ery per­son added to a meet­ing low­ers the odds of mak­ing a swift and strong de­ci­sion by 10 per­cent. Yet the size of most meet­ings keeps spiraling higher. “There’s a sense of sta­tus to be­ing in meet­ings all day—it must mean you’re very im­por­tant,” says Mank­ins. Even if a cul­ture dic­tates sta­dium-size meet­ings, you can buck the trend. Mank­ins tells of a gov­ern­ment meet­ing of 60 peo­ple. As an ice­breaker, the leader sug­gested that the at­ten­dees in­tro­duce them­selves and ex­plain why they were there. “By the 10th in­tro, peo­ple weren’t wait­ing to be dis­missed,” he says, and the meet­ing was quickly culled to the dozen or so who needed to be present. Con­sider such a tac­tic for any over­staffed meet­ing, Mank­ins ad­vises.

PUT AP­PROVALS IN PLACE –

“Most or­ga­ni­za­tions place very few re­stric­tions on who can call a meet­ing,” says Mank­ins. He points to a large man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany that re­al­ized a 90-minute weekly meet­ing au­topi­loted by mi­dlevel man­agers—and sched­uled by an as­sis­tant—cost more than $ 15 mil­lion an­nu­ally in wasted time. That as­sis­tant ef­fec­tively in­vested “$ 15 mil­lion— with­out a su­per­vi­sor’s ap­proval,” he says. At an­other com­pany Bain worked with, any meet­ing that’s go­ing to ex­ceed 90 min­utes or in­clude more than seven peo­ple re­quires the sign-off of a su­per­vi­sor’s su­per­vi­sor. That sim­ple guardrail saves the com­pany as many work hours as 200 full-time em­ploy­ees would log in six months.

MEET LIKE IT’S SATUR­DAY MORN­ING

“A client once shared with me that the most pro­duc­tive meet­ings are the ones sched­uled for early Satur­day morn­ing,” says Mank­ins. Week­end meet­ings are uni­ver­sally loathed, so the agenda and the at­tendee list are slashed to the bare es­sen­tials. “They’re in­cred­i­bly ef­fi­cient and in­cred­i­bly short, and of­ten they pro­duce very real out­comes,” he says. Not sure you’d in­vite Dave if it meant skip­ping tee time? Then don’t in­vite him on Tues­day.

PRAC­TICE GOOD MEET­ING HY­GIENE –

For starters, be on time. “If ev­ery hour­long meet­ing be­gins five min­utes late, that costs a com­pany 8 per­cent of its meet­ing time,” Mank­ins points out. Next, out­law check­ing phones and email. Such ac­tiv­i­ties have been shown to lower func­tional IQ by 10 points—which is, by some mea­sures, about twice the im­pact of smok­ing mar­i­juana. And in­sist on cir­cu­lat­ing an agenda be­fore­hand. Roughly one-third of all meet­ings lack agen­das, and only 29 per­cent of sched­ulers dis­trib­ute a writ­ten plan in ad­vance. “A clear agenda tells peo­ple which meet­ings they can safely post­pone or ig­nore,” says Mank­ins.

CRE­ATE A TIME BUD­GET –

Peo­ple are mind­ful when they spend a lim­ited re­source, but they may not un­der­stand how scarce an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s time is. Make that clear by set­ting a time bud­get: Any new reg­u­lar meet­ing must be “funded” by killing an ex­ist­ing one. Alan Mu­lally brought that ap­proach to Ford. When he be­came CEO in 2006, the com­pany’s top 35 ex­ecs were gath­er­ing each month for five straight days of rote meet­ings. Says Mank­ins, “Mu­lally es­sen­tially said, ‘We’re not go­ing to spend any more time on meet­ings.’ ” He didn’t at­tack that meet­ings week di­rectly, but the slog sud­denly grew much more pro­duc­tive as ex­ecs started us­ing it to fo­cus on more press­ing ini­tia­tives. With­out the guide­line, th­ese new meet­ings would have just been added to every­one’s cal­en­dar.

KNOW WHEN TO PULL THE PLUG –

If your com­pany’s cal­en­dar de­faults to hour­long meet­ings, change that now. “If the sched­ule calls for 60 min­utes, most com­pa­nies’ meet­ings al­most al­ways last the full hour, whether they need to or not,” says Mank­ins. “That’s crazy.” Set the de­fault for 30 min­utes so a longer gath­er­ing re­quires an ac­tive de­ci­sion. If things seem to be wind­ing down af­ter 20 min­utes, end it early. (Your work­ers will thank you.) At Ap­ple, Steve Jobs would pull the plug as soon as a meet­ing’s pro­duc­tiv­ity nose­dived, or if peo­ple came un­pre­pared. Harsh? Per­haps. But he stopped time from be­ing wasted—in­clud­ing his own.

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