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.

How to Hold a Productive Meeting

If you attend a lot of meetings throughout the year you are not alone. You are most certainly not alone!

In the United States alone businesses hold 11 million formal meetings a DAY. That’s over 3 billion, yes billon, meetings a year. Many, maybe most, of those meetings produce no tangible result, with the possible exception of more meetings.

I’m not saying that all meetings are bad, managed well, great things can and do come out of meetings. It’s just that so few meetings are well managed. Holding a meeting should be a serious decision. I wonder how many times a hallway conversation has led to “let’s get the team together and talk about this” with no additional planning or thought as to the cost of the meeting. Way too many companies hold meetings because that is just what companies have always done. Poorly managed meetings cost businesses billions of dollars a year. Yes COST! Meetings are not free; there are real costs associated with every meeting.

If everyone involved in a meeting is “local” the expenses can be limited to “opportunity” losses and a simple loss of productively. If it’s a big meeting with people traveling to a central location the expense can be enormous.

Either way, big or small, productive meetings don’t just happen; they need to be planned. If a meeting isn’t worth planning then the meeting isn’t worth holding.

If you are the person calling a meeting then it is your responsibility to make certain there is an agenda for the meeting. BEFORE you begin developing the agenda you MUST determine the objective for the meeting. If you can’t think of an objective for the meeting then don’t think about having the meeting either.

As the “caller” of the meeting you are not required to personally develop the agenda; you are required to ensure that an agenda is developed and disseminated. If there is no time to develop at least a limited agenda then there is certainly no time for a meeting either. If the meeting requires any preparation and thinking on the part of the attendees then the agenda should be provided at least 24 hours in advance. The more preparation and thinking that are required the earlier the agenda should be provided. By the way, if no preparation and thinking are required on the part of the attendees then no meeting is required either.

The agenda must include start and end times. Every meeting should start and end on time and if it will take 25 minutes for the objective to be achieved then don’t schedule a 30 minute meeting just because it’s easier in Outlook. Staying on time, staying on topic and focusing on the objective of the meeting demonstrates to all attendees that meetings matter and so does their time. Your meetings may not be as “fun” but they will be a heck of a lot more productive.

Carefully consider who will be invited to the meeting. If a person won’t or can’t help with the objective of the meeting then that person doesn’t need to be at the meeting. They can be more productive doing almost anything else.

The meeting must end with a clear, specific statement as to the next steps. If the only “next step” is another meeting then the meeting you just finished either wasn’t long enough or more likely, didn’t need to be held at all.

Holding meetings is easy, holding productive meetings isn’t. Productive meetings require preparation and disciple but that preparation can make a huge difference in the productivity of your entire organization.

Here’s another thought on meetings… ban them! Not altogether, maybe just one day a month, no meetings, none, nada, zip, zero meetings one day a month. No meetings anywhere in your organization, every conference room completely empty! Call it your “Super Productivity Day,” the day when every member of your organization only works on the absolutely most productive thing possible. Maybe it’s something unpleasant they have been putting off, maybe it’s something that really means a lot to them. Great things will happen on that day and it will send a message that you know meetings matter and you know that having less meetings matters too.

Good meetings won’t guarantee success, but enough bad meetings will almost certainly guarantee something less than success.

Get your team together and talk about it! Oh, geez, here we go again…..