Polite meetings waste time

Yesterday I interviewed Robert Herbold, former Chief Operating Officer of Microsoft and author of “What’s Holding You Back.” Bob’s quiet, gentlemanly tone shifted toward disdain when the topic moved to wasting time in poorly run meetings.

Frankly, it was a pleasure hearing him explain that he felt many meetings are useless religious ceremonies controlled by highly organized, meaningless ritual after meaningless ritual.

Effective structure:

I asked Bob how he ran meetings and he mentioned Bill Gates’ method of running meetings at Microsoft.

  1. Have short agendas. Leave plenty of room for discussion. In general, 60% of meeting time should be left for discussion. It was surprising to me that Bob, a self-describe math geek, loves “wide open” meetings.
  2. Bill G, as Bob referred to him, begins all meetings with the “low-lights.” Start with problems. Start where most people end. Bob explained that most meetings begin with the “high lights” that everyone already knows. Tragically, real discussions that address real issues are crammed into the last few minutes.

Key ingredient:

I interrupted Bob and asked him how meetings with short agendas and long discussions accomplished anything. He said it’s the chair person’s job to keep everyone focused on real problems and high potential opportunities.

The chairperson:

  1. Explains where he expects participants to focus their attention. They create the sandbox where everyone plays.
  2. Creates a culture where confrontation is welcomed and expected. The chairperson says things like, “How is this relevant to our current discussion.” They keep everyone playing in the same sandbox.
  3. Confronts by saying things like, “Times up, let’s do something.” A timely ending is as important as the proper beginning.
Finally, this polite gentleman explained that “polite meetings” are most likely an unnecessary waste of time.
Start with the “bad” stuff, give room for creative tension, and make something happen.
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Do you have a meeting from hell story?

What techniques have you used to create effective meetings?