How to reduce the time spent on meetings

Meetings are a necessary part of everyone’s working life. Whether it’s with clients, suppliers, colleagues, bosses, unions, policy makers: we all need to have meetings to work together, come to decisions, or share information. In many organizations, meetings have become the main way for people to interact with each other.

Several studies show that people spend 30-50% of their time in meetings, and consider at least a quarter of them a waste of time. To address this waste, many books, tools, checklists, and trainings have been  conceived on how to conduct effective meetings. Often, they are about how to hold an effective meeting. Sometimes they also deal with the most important questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this meeting? Is the topic really important?
  2. Is a meeting the right way to address this topic, or can it be done by one or two people on their own?
  3. Who are the people that absolutely need to be involved? (and skip the rest)

Yes, I am stating the obvious. It is not revolutionary at all. Everybody knows this, and agrees with it. So why are the number and length of meetings not reduced? What is the underlying human behavior?

Several years ago, I was in a meeting where the management team discussed the color of the carpet of the new building. As I didn’t feel strongly about the topic, I removed myself from the heated debate. Looking around the boardroom, I wondered whether these men and women had imagined doing this when they were in their late teens, early twenties. Had they pictured themselves in a stale meeting room, passionately discussing the color of the new carpet?

I guess not.

At that time, would they have believed that in their forties they would spend more than half an hour deciding whether it should be a light or a dark shade of blue?

Again, probably not.

So, what happened to them along the way? What had changed, that twenty five years later, they were heatedly defending their take on the color of the carpet? Why was it so hard for them to realize, before or during the meeting, that this was not the most effective use of their time?

Because many people always have an opinion, together with the natural urge to share it. Especially in response to hearing someone else’s opinion. Take politicians, doctors, teachers and the like. A few decades ago, they were put on a pedestal, and very few people would question their professional decisions. Nowadays, we all feel we can question everyone, every time, everywhere.

In general that’s a good thing. We should not doggedly follow others, just because they are considered the expert. But we also don’t need to voice, or even have, an opinion on everything, always. Whether it’s about politics, other people’s lives, or the color of the carpet.

The good news: the reduction of the number and length of meetings lies in our direct power. Just by asking ourselves whether we can add value. We should realize that deciding on the shade of blue for the carpet is not adding value in any way. And then remove ourselves from that discussion, and be content with the outcome.

Next time when you’re having a meeting, really ask yourself the three questions above. Determine whether you and the other participants really can add value by having the meeting, or whether you’re just deciding on the color of the carpet.

4 easy-to-spot tell-tale signs you can save on headquarter costs (4)

In the previous post, the oversized headquarters as one of the biggest organizational wastes was addressed. Oversized corporate departments are a black hole attracting valuable resources, scarce cash-flow and lots of energy.

I’d like to urge you again to consult your local managers and local HR. They can point to the waste in the organization in fine detail. But as I said, these good people are kept away from you by your army. Discuss the four topics in these posts directly with your local management. If they experience (one of) these, you know where to improve your organizational efficiency.

The first was complexity in the hierarchy of the organization. Do not sustain organizational hierarchies that ask for more than two reporting lines. Simplify them, and put responsibility back where it belongs. You probably can cut a few expensive positions along the way.

The second was about corporate visits. Check with local management how much time they have to spent on corporate visits, and what they do to prepare (required by the visitor as well as on their own initiative). Reduce the visits as well as the requirements for preparation to a minimum.

The third post addressed additional data requests from corporate. Check with your local management what kind of data requests they receive, whether they serve any real purpose, and if so, whether the time spent on it (both locally and in corporate) justifies the benefits.

In this post I’ll address the fourth and last topic – specialized corporate departments. Check your full organizational chart, and look for the corporate departments. You know you have considerable waste in your organization when:

the org chart for corporate resembles a labyrinth.

You’ll be surprised how many organizations have corporate departments serving the same purpose. Especially if they are working independently from each other, they tend to triple the complexity around that topic. For example, some organizations have two or more internal audit structures. They will waste time on duplicating work, competing with their twin department (such as spending time on proving the other one wrong) and pulling at the same resources.

You will also often see specialized departments taken out of the department they originally belonged to. For example training and development sometimes is taken out of HR, and made into a separate department with its own VP and other high level managers. Again, time is wasted on duplicating work, competing with each other, and fighting for the same resources.

Another interesting approach is checking the number of pages of policies in the organization. In case the organization has more than 250+ pages of policies, you’ll find that many are unnecessary detailed intricate solutions for imaginary problems you never heard of.

These three problems almost always stem from only two root causes:

  1. internal conflicts between high level managers were not adequately solved, but patched by letting someone satisfy his or her own ego by establishing a separate department.
  2. a (part of a) department didn’t deliver, so an additional department was established to achieve the desired result.

In both cases, the underlying problem wasn’t addressed. Often out of good intentions: people didn’t want to hurt an underperformer too much, or didn’t want to blame someone specifically. However, these patches lead to inefficiency and corporate waste, and are therefore unnecessary expensive.

Solution

  • check which corporate departments serve the same purpose, and reduce them
  • check which corporate departments are responsible for a small part of what another department should be responsible for, and combine them
  • check which policies do not make sense or are over-complicated, and start cutting overhead in the department end-responsible for these policies
  • in the future, make sure underperformance or internal conflicts are properly solved, and do NOT result in adding a new corporate department

At the end of this series, let me emphasize once more: your local managers and local HR can point to the waste in the organization in fine detail. You won’t be able to get this information from your corporate army, who usually won’t do anything to jeopardize their own position. With these four posts, you know where to improve your organizational efficiency.

4 easy-to-spot tell-tale signs you can save on headquarter costs (3)

In the previous posts, the oversized headquarters as one of the biggest organizational wastes was addressed. Oversized corporate departments are a black hole attracting valuable resources, scarce cash-flow and lots of energy.

I’d like to urge you again to consult your local managers and local HR. They can point to the waste in the organization in fine detail. But as I said, these good people are kept away from you by your army. Discuss the four topics in these posts directly with your local management. If they experience (one of) these, you know where to improve your organizational efficiency.

In this post I’ll address the third topic – data requests by corporate. You know you have considerable waste in your organization when:

corporate regularly asks for additional data that has to be gathered manually locally.

To give you a real-life example: in a big international organization, local entities get a new request for information from corporate. This request is outlined in a three-page email which:

  • explains in excruciating detail who has to submit what to whom before which date;
  • contains a 10-slide Powerpoint with intricately designed multi-colored pictograms showing how this data request fits in the global strategy;
  • lists instructions on how to fill the data request template containing detailed definitions attempting consistent data submission across all entities;
  • for that same purpose it also has elaborate scoring matrices to classify the data in pre-set categories, not allowing local entities to deviate, even if they don’t have the data available according to those categories, or when the categories don’t make sense for their local situation.

Most top managers like as much kpi’s and data as they can get their hands on. It gives an (often false) sense of control. Yes, you need the right kind of information to base good decisions on. But you need to weigh the amount of effort put into data gathering against the benefits. Often people don’t realize how much time and energy is spent on data gathering. Even when there’s a good ERP system in place.

To give you an idea of the time spent on a simple data request, know that for every hour per month that local managers spend on generating these kind of reports for various corporate departments, they need an exponential additional amount of time for:

  1. answering questions that come up because the data is being (pre-)analyzed by people who don’t understand the context;
  2. arguing to adjust the conclusions the analyzers wrongfully draw from data they still don’t fully understand;
  3. influencing the inevitable catastrophic decisions coming out of those wrong conclusions;
  4. when bad decisions are made on the basis of wrong conclusions, they need to adjust those decisions creatively, in order to implement something workable for the local organization;
  5. during implementation they need to have endless conversations with employees to keep them from becoming fully disillusioned with the useless changes, to keep attrition down, while maintaining focus on the business goals they have to achieve despite the new changes;
  6. reporting progress back, restarting the cycle at 1.

Solution

Check with your local management what kind of data requests they receive, whether they serve any real purpose, and if so, whether the time spent on it (both locally and corporate) justifies the benefits. Cut those requests out when:

  • they are even half as elaborate as the example above
  • local managers spend more than an hour per month generating data and reports for various corporate departments
  • you hear stories about managers who, with a tired voice, ask their people to just submit invented or senseless data, because otherwise their department will look bad when corporate shows red crosses in the overview report every month indicating they have NOT YET submitted the required data (and remember, don’t blame the managers for this behavior, blame the corporate departments that put this kind of pressure on local entities)

For other savings, keep your eyes peeled for the next and last post!

4 easy-to-spot tell-tale signs you can save on headquarter costs (2)

In the previous post, the oversized headquarters as one of the biggest organizational wastes was addressed. Oversized corporate departments are a black hole attracting valuable resources, scarce cash-flow and lots of energy.

I’d like to urge you again to consult your local managers and local HR. They can point to the waste in the organization in fine detail. But as I said, these good people are kept away from you by your army. Discuss the four topics in these posts directly with your local management. If they experience (one of) these, you know where to improve your organizational efficiency.

In this post I’ll address the second topic – corporate visits. You know you have considerable waste in your organization when:

local management has to spend more than 10% of their time entertaining corporate visitors, internal auditors and higher level managers.

Some might say, come on, isn’t that part of their job? Corporate people can’t do a good job without having valuable input from local management. Meetings on budgets and results are better done face to face, right? And corporate departments need to show their faces locally, to keep at least a little bit of credit.

True. I’m not advocating a complete stop to corporate visits. But keep them to a minimum. Check what kind of corporate visits local management needs to entertain, and what they have to do for these visits.

Because in the real world, the corporate army designs an interesting set of requirements for visits, leading to a lot of inefficiencies. Examples I have seen:

  • 100+ slides presentations have to be prepared three weeks prior to the visit
  • Many (more than twenty) people will work for hours, if not days, to give input for this presentation
  • Then the presentation goes through an approval cycle, so several people can adjust and sign off (meaning, the corporate army filters the information flowing to the top or to other corporate departments)
  • The personal hobby horses of the visitor need to be addressed, meaning work will be reprioritized to humor this specific visitor
  • Most people want to impress corporate visitors, so whole departments will stop doing their normal work during a visit
  • The organization needs a few days, sometimes weeks, to recover from such a visit. Especially if the corporate visitor blurts out uninformed untrue things about the local organization, or is unfairly critical, or overdemanding. The upset this creates, causes local managers to have to do repair work for weeks. This really happens much more often than people think!

Solution

Check with local management how much time they have to spent on corporate visits, and what they do to prepare (required by the visitor as well as on their own initiative). Reduce the visits as well as the requirements for preparation to a minimum.

For other savings, keep your eyes peeled for the next two posts!

The budget games

Ever noticed how much budget discussions between corporate and local managers resemble a sports game? Let’s analyze an average budget meeting.

Game kick-off

Local management kicks of the game with a predictable first move: they propose a slightly improved budget compared to the current year forecast. A safe and predictable move, not drawing admiration of the other party or the onlookers, but not putting them at risk of an extreme counter move by top management either.

Now it’s the other party’s turn. No suspense yet, as the move by top management is just as predictable. They lay down their expectation of less cost and more turnover, increasing profit by 5-10%.

The middle part

Now that both teams have had time to warm up and get used to the arena and each other, the real game begins.

Arguments go back and forth, pulling the budget a bit down here, a bit up there. Now and then both parties score a point by having the stronger arguments that seem to convince the other team, at least temporarily. Often the game gets stuck a bit as we enter the phase that both parties aren’t inclined to budge to the other party.

In this phase the onlookers can spice it up for themselves by:

Playing budget bingo

Before the meeting, make a list with phrases such as ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘efficiency’, ‘built-in fat’, ‘entrepreneurship’, etc. Please add the current buzz words for your organization, and leave room for some interesting new phrases or words to note down during the game. For these, the onlookers afterwards can place bets on which phrases will become new buzz words in the aftermath of the budget meeting. Add columns for how long it took before the phrase was mentioned the first time, and score the number of times it was used.

Closure

After a while one or both parties will start to feel worn out. Now you know the game is coming to an end. The discussion will go back and forth a bit more, but soon parties grudgingly agree on a compromise. Almost always the new budget is the average of what top management set and local management proposed. A result that could have been simply calculated within 15 minutes of the start of the meeting.

Now note the number of people around the table on your budget bingo sheet (13 the last time I did this), estimate their average salary (in my case 150k annually, conservative estimate) and calculate the cost spent on reaching this budget. One day budget discussions easily costs 5k. Not counting the rework finance and the budget holders have to do.

Then sit back and let the irony of talking about low-hanging fruit fully hit you.