A Million Dollar Meeting

Years ago when I was a younger salesperson one of my biggest potential accounts was the 3M Company in Minnesota. They had a group there that was called the 3M Meeting Management Institute. The group published a paper that gave lots of guidelines on how to hold effective meetings. They also estimated that the 3M Company was wasting 1 million dollars a day on ineffective meetings. (Apparently they weren’t following their own advice)

 

I hadn’t had a lot of luck breaking into that account until one day I was in a stationary store and saw a poster with a picture of 1 million dollars on fire surrounded by smoke. I bought a bunch of them and began mailing one a day to the CEO of 3M with the same short note every day. The note said “another million up in smoke…I can help put out the fire but only if you give me the chance.” 

 

I think I sent 14 or 15 posters before his administrative assistant called me to set up an appointment. 3M became the biggest account for my entire organization. 

 

The fact that 3M was losing 1 million dollars a day (if that was indeed accurate) speaks more to the shear size of their company than it does to their inability to hold productive meetings. I don’t think they were really any worse at meetings than any other company, including yours.

 

The jokes and one-liners about ineffective meetings are endless. You have undoubtedly heard many of them yourself like, “meetings are where the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.” Or “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to get anything done.” 

 

They are funny and would be even funnier if it were not for the serious loss of productivity. Meetings are serious business. They are expensive whether the person or organization calling the meeting realizes it or not. 

 

You may never learn to like meetings but you can learn to give them at least a chance at being productive by following a few simple guidelines. These are in no particular order but the more of them you follow the better your chances of have a meeting that matters. 

 

Before you call a meeting, justify it. Don’t schedule a meeting until you’re certain you need a meeting. Most people assume that meetings are productive. If you want a productive meeting then you should assume the exact opposite. Ask yourself, “What is the intended outcome? What are we trying to accomplish? Do we need to put people in a room together to accomplish it?” If you can’t specifically demonstrate the need for a meeting, don’t have a meeting. If you can, then the process of justifying it will help you focus on what you want the meeting to accomplish. It will increase the chances of the meeting achieving your goals.

 

Don’t invite spectators to the meeting. It’s easy to “over-invite” people to meetings. We include people that may or may not help us accomplish the meeting objective. Don’t do that. Only invite people who you know will add value to the meeting. Inviting spectators to a meeting means you have people in the meeting who feel no responsibility to follow through. They feel no responsibility to accomplish anything. The only thing spectators actually accomplish is making the meeting take longer than it should.

 

Schedule only the amount of time required to accomplish the objective. Programs like Outlook are no help when it comes to planning productive meetings. The default time when scheduling a meeting with Outlook is 30 or 60 minutes. Ignore those defaults. If you can accomplish your objective in 12 minutes then schedule a 12 minute meeting. People will appreciate your respect for their time. You’ll likely accomplish as much in those 12 minutes as you would have accomplished in a 60 minute meeting. 

 

If you scheduled the meeting then it’s your meeting. When no one is in charge of the meeting then no one is in charge of the meeting. Few objectives are accomplished from meetings with no one in charge. If you called the meeting then you’re in charge of the meeting. You’re responsible for maintaining focus. Your responsible for accomplishing objectives and you’re responsible for keeping the meeting on time. If you can’t accept that responsibility then don’t schedule the meeting. 

 

If there are no action steps it wasn’t a productive meeting. I’ve never been in a meeting where there wasn’t lots of talking. I’ve been in a ton of meetings where there was no action. Talk is cheap but action is priceless. If no one is assigned an action step, or several action steps, then nothing will come from the meeting. (Well actually something is likely to come from a meeting with no actions steps….another meeting) Every meeting participant should know exactly what is expected of them as a result of participating in the meeting and also when it is expected of them. If, and that’s a big if, if there is a follow up meeting it should begin with a discussion of those action steps. Remember, a lack of action steps lead to only one thing… no action.


Just because most meetings are not productive doesn’t mean most meetings can’t be productive. You may not be losing a million dollars a day in unproductive meetings but you almost certainly aren’t getting what you could get from them. If you’re calling the meeting then the ultimate success of the meeting is on you. If you can’t accept that then no one else should accept your meeting.