Drowning in meetings, what do I do?


Where I work we’re simply drowning in meetings. I spent almost the whole of every day dashing from one to the next back-to-back. It is exhausting and there’s no time to prep or doing any real work.

There must be a better way. What can we do about it?

Perhaps it will reassure you to know that this is extremely common – so at least you are in good company. The plague of meetingitis has infected large parts of the world. Fortunately the solution is simple.

I often wonder just how much latent productivity is locked up in the world’s obsession with meetings. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an economic boom followed a decision to ban excessive meetings, making them a criminal offence!

Happily though, you don’t need to wait for that to be able to take action.

Most meetings cultures develop because people don’t understand the importance of separating decisions from discussions and try to mix the two in the same context. Key to having few, short, highly-focused meetings is knowing when and how to separate them and keep them clear.

An end to meeting hell: two clear and different types of session

Decision Meetings

Meetings that take decisions must be short. 30 minutes is a typical maximum.

With proper preparation, a lot of decisions can be taken in a short space of time and indeed it isn’t healthy to take too many decisions at once. People need time to find out if earlier decisions were good ones before making later follow-on decisions.

“But how is this possible?”, I hear you say, “We can easily spent 30 minutes discussing one item!”.

It’s possible because decisions are only taken in these meetings if the group is ready to decide.

This isn’t merely an opinion thing, there are two simple clear criteria for decisions that are allowed to be on the agenda:

1. Do we have to make the decision now?

If so, then it must be made whether or not everyone has had time to give their input and whether people are ready or not. Proceed to a very short summary of the options (not a detailed discussion) followed by a simple majority vote (or whoever has the authority decides).

Don’t permit long debates about whether we “have to or not” – if there’s significant disagreement then the answer is almost always “no, we’re obviously not ready” or else someone in authority simply decides this.

If we don’t have to make the decision now, then the decision may be immediately parked, depending on the answer to the second question:

2. Are we all ready to make the decision?

If so, then proceed to a short summary of options and make the decision (as described above).

If not, then park the decision pending further exploration – which means time for people to go off an learn more / consider the options and at least one “Discussion Workshop” (see below) before the next Decision Meeting.

When parking, be sure to list simply and clearly what “further exploration” means – is this more time, more data, specific information, specific input, what?

That’s all there is to Decision Meetings.

Run this way with an effective chair they are never more than 30 minutes and frequently shorter. Once up and running you almost certainly won’t need more than one of these meetings every week, which frees up a lot of time for everyone.

Discussion Workshops

These are what you do in between Decision Meetings (and never back-to-back with them – as we’ll see).

The goal is pure exploration of the problem and the options. The golden rule is: Never take a decision during a Discussion Workshop. Even if everyone seems of one mind this can be group-think (lead by the most vocal participants) and often a bit of time and space will detect between options, ideas or constructive criticism.

The second golden rule is: Get the right people in the room. If you are missing critical players then find them – there’s no greater waste of time than going ahead without key people. If they are not available then whatever they are doing must be more important than making progress and this needs to be flagged up and acknowledged at all levels – or they must be made available.

The outcomes of a Discussion Workshop should be:

Much better alignment of understanding on the problems and available options

New options and possibilities arising from the discussion

Everyone feels that a big step forward has been taken

A prioritised list of further explorations or actions that are needed


Agreement to proceed to a decision: not in the workshop, in a separate Decision Meeting at least one day later
(to allow for reflection and contributions from introverts, a critical factor as they often have the clearest thinking)

The best format for these workshops is typically:

1. Get everyone in a nice big room with whitewall or whiteboards and flipcharts

2. Get a big supply of post-it notes, marker pens and record cards

3. Make the session interactive with people standing-up and sticking ideas and options on the wall

4. Split into groups to parallelise and enable small, fast conversations

5. Structure the session with breaks and reflection time (coming back together as one group to talk through learnings)

6. Have someone act as scribe to photograph the walls and capture key action points (and circulate immediately after the session)

NB: Never make the mistake of having people sat down all the time staring at computers, phones and tablets whilst someone drones on or uses PowerPoint*. That’s not discussion, that’s a lecture.

*Tip: If you must have PowerPoint, get people to review PowerPoint presentations in advance and spend time in the workshop discussing their thinking, not stepping through endless slides. If nobody read through in advance, perhaps you need a better way than PowerPoint to get your point across in a simple, attention-grabbing way?

Of course there’s dozens of different techniques you can use in the sessions to elicit ideas and make progress (Brainstorming, Creativity Exercises, Games, etc…) but the key thing is work with people in a way that gets them engaged, enthused and is fun.

And that’s pretty much all there is to Discussion Workshops. These will be longer than your Decision Meetings and you’ll probably have more of them but run well you’ll still spend much less time in both types than you did before.

Good luck applying the cure!

If nobody will listen, perhaps you should consider moving somewhere where they will. I hate to see good people held back and you are most definitely asking the right kind of questions.

Posted in Collaboration, Decision Meeting, Decision-Making, Discussion Workshop.

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