The horrors of context switching (and how to beat them) – Part 2

Part Deux

The first post on this topic covered many of the ways that context switching can destroy the productivity of your day but most of the post was aimed at developers.  This one reaches out to everyone that works in an office.  Scott Adams has made a career out of ridiculing the pointlessness of workplace politics.  In no setting is this ridicule more pronounced than the pointless meeting.

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Multitasking meetings?

Have you ever been in a meeting and looked around the table while someone is giving a presentation?  What do you see?  Too many times I would see a scene like this:  John is looking at his phone, Betty is trolling the web while Michael is writing on a post-it in front of Margaret.  Sound familiar?  Exactly, the workplace has regressed back to fifth grade.

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Even worse, I once had a CEO that would regularly take phone calls from his wife while we were in a meeting and would talk with her on the phone for a good 5-10 minutes while everyone would be sitting there waiting.  Sometimes, he would even lapse into baby talk.  It was a fantastic use of time.  This happened in executive leadership meetings all the time.  Let’s look at the economics behind this.  If he took a call with eight of us in the room, each of us making an average of $250/hr, each 10 minute phone call he took would cost the company roughly $500.  This accounts for the 5 minutes it would take for us to get back to where we were in the meeting.  Granted, this guy was a world class asshole but these types of things happen all the time in meetings across the globe.

Luckily, there is a cure for the pointless meeting.

7 tips for a productive meeting

The best way to deal with distractions if these are your meetings is to be honest with your teams.  Be very clear that you are not going to waste their time but be just as clear that you will not tolerate them wasting yours or other people’s time.  When people aren’t paying attention, most of the time it is because they are not engaged.  That’s on you as a leader.  These are 7 tips that I have found to be incredibly effective for holding a highly engaged meeting:

  1. Have an agenda and stick to it
  2. ONLY invite people that can contribute to the topics on the agenda
  3. Lids down.  Phones down.
  4. Start on time
  5. Don’t take up the full meeting time if you don’t have to
  6. At the end of the meeting ask the attendees if they thought it was productive or not
  7. Write down action items and send them out with a summary after the meeting

Make it about respect

The strongest statement you can make that the meeting will be productive is to have an agenda.  Having an agenda means that you have enough respect for your team that you prepared in advance.  If it is not your meeting, it is perfectly acceptable to ask what the agenda is.  If the leader of the meeting doesn’t have one, make sure you get that person to cover the points they hope to get done in the meeting before the meeting starts.  I’m at a stage in my career that I will typically leave a meeting if there is no agenda.  The end result of this action is that I either don’t get invited to, in my opinion pointless, meetings or the leader of the meeting puts together an agenda before inviting me.

Always run the numbers

Run the numbers.  If somebody is not going to be contributing in the meeting and you invite them to it anyway, ask yourself, how much do they make an hour?  If they’re not contributing am I willing to burn $100 of the company’s money to have them there doing nothing?  Many times people are invited to meetings not to contribute but just so they don’t miss out on information being passed in the meeting.  This is a terrible use of their time.  A simple summary email once the meeting is over is far more effective and will not require context switching.

Once the agenda is briefly covered, expect all participants of the meeting to be engaged.  The best way to enforce this is by asking for lids down and phones down.  It is far more difficult to be engaged if the distraction of a laptop or a phone is staring you in the face.

Start your meetings on time.  Do not wait for stragglers that are rolling in late.  Start on time and either end on time or end early.  Respect your people by treating them like adults.  If somebody rolls in late, let them catch up on the topic in their own time.  Do not keep stopping the meeting to fill folks in on what they missed.  That’s a waste of everyone’s time.  Even if it is somebody who is higher than you in the corporate hierarchy.  If somebody asks for a summary after showing up late, you can handle this with tact.  Say something along the lines of, “I’ll be happy to fill you in later but with respect to everyone’s time we need to stay on topic.”

I used this approach with a former COO of mine.  This COO would roll into every meeting 5 to 10 minutes late.  I could tell he was annoyed with my approach but, very professionally, he waited until the meeting was over to let me know.  He explained that he was incredibly busy and that most other meetings he had ran over.  I let him know that I understood that frustration but then I went to the numbers.  If I interrupted the meeting every time someone came in late, I not only risked disengaging the rest of the team, but we would be forced to go off topic, then context switch back to the topic on hand.  If there were 10 people in the room each making roughly $100 an hour, that 5 minute interruption costs almost $100.  If we do that twice a meeting, it starts to get very expensive.  The other point I made was that if I only were to do this for him because he outranked me, I would be showing my team that we have two different standards in the company in regards to respecting people’s time.  We would basically be saying that it’s ok to waste other people’s time as long as you outrank them.  To his credit, he just nodded.  I would love to say that after that conversation, he was never late to a meeting but that just wasn’t true.  He never asked me for a summary again however.

When you get through your points, end the meeting

Once you are through with the agenda, END THE MEETING.  Nothing is more infuriating than having a leader of a meeting look at the clock and say, “Oooh look, we still have 20 minutes left, let’s try to get this done too!”  Why is that so infuriating?  Because of tip #2.  You put the attendees of that meeting together ahead of time to contribute to the topics on the agenda.  Once you go off of those topics, somebody, if not everybody will feel like you are wasting their time.  Ending early is a sign of efficiency and your team will respect you for it.  Throwing pointless filler in at the end of a meeting is a waste of resources.

Incorporate the feedback loop.  At the end of the meeting ask the group if they thought the meeting was an effective use of their time.  Make sure you get an answer from each attendee.  It is critical that you are open to this feedback or else it just comes across as lip service.  If an attendee says they think that it was an ineffective use of their time, make sure you get them to give you a couple of ideas of how they would make the time more effective.  If the majority of the attendees say the meeting was an ineffective use of time, you need to be ok with cancelling similar future meetings especially if they are scheduled weekly.

Finally, make sure to write down the action items that come up during the meeting.  When the meeting is over, take five minutes to write up a summary that gets sent out to the attendees and anyone else that needs to know what was discussed in the meeting.  This summary should also contain the action items that came out of the meeting.  This is critical because this is a written record of the commitments that people made in the meeting.

Conclusion

I would say that at least 60% of all meetings are a complete waste of time.  Not only do you lose the time that is spent in the pointless meeting, you also lose all the time around the meeting when you have to context switch and try to get back in the flow of what you were actually working on.  It doesn’t have to be this way:

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