June 14, 2012

Who’s in the Room?

Take a look at your calendar.  Last week I had 12 meetings.  This week the number is 11.  Many of you probably had more than that.  A closer look reveals that my 12 meetings had a total of 59 people invited to attend.  To keep the math easy, let’s assume that’s 59 person-hours scheduled for one  week.  That’s a significant investment.

If you’re a football fan, you probably watched at least at few minutes of ESPN’s marathon coverage of the NFL draft.  It’s a fascinating spectacle for some, the most boring 27 hours of TV imaginable for others.   If you’ve ever seen the coverage, then you’re familiar with the ‘War Room’.  This is a gathering that each team conducts in a conference room somewhere at their headquarters.  Most have a TV camera trained on them the whole time, and ESPN will occasionally give us a live look at what’s going on in a team’s ‘War Room.’

The one thing that always strikes me is the number of people in that room.  Each war room contains 12-20 people.  In almost every case, 90% of those people appear to be doing nothing of consequence when the camera is on.  Usually there are one or two on the phone or engaged in some sort of important-looking discussion.  What are the others doing?  Does it make sense to even have them there?  I’ll come back to that.

Let’s switch the scene back to your calendar.  Pick any meeting at random.  Do you really need to be there?  Now take a look at the invite list.  How many people on the list actually attend?  How many participate regularly?  It’s the second number that can really be telling.  In my experience, many meetings struggle to accomplish their goals because the wrong people are in the room (or on the phone).

NFL teams have a lot at stake in the draft.  They are about to use two scarce resources, a draft pick and a lot of money to sign that pick, and they cannot delay the decision.  Because of the stakes and the time limits, they want to have as much information at their fingertips as possible (hence all the people sitting around).  But, when it’s time for the decision to be made, there is almost always just one or two people making the decision.  While this makes for not-particularly-interesting television, it’s also the sign of a really bad meeting.  Inefficiently using 18 people’s time might be acceptable for an NFL franchise making million dollar decisions over the course of 3 days, but those same teams of people spend the entire year preparing for the draft.  I’ll take a guess that’s not the case with your meetings.

When you create the invitation list for a meeting, treat it more like a draft and less like an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Start with the purpose of the meeting.  If the purpose is to make decisions, keep the invite list to decision makers.  Never forget that every hour in a meeting is an hour that you (and anyone else that you invite) aren’t working on other things.  When NFL teams make a draft choice, they weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each potential choice before settling on the one that best meets their needs.  You should do the same.  If you aren’t sure who to invite, try limiting yourself to a number that you feel is appropriate for the meeting’s purpose without considering the individual invitees.  Then, go round-by-round choosing the best fit until you’ve reached that number.  When you are out of spots, you should feel confident that you have only invited those that need to be there.

It’s not so much about having a small meeting invite list as it is about having the RIGHT invite list.  To help get yourself to the right list, try these ideas:

  1. Change it up – The recurring appointment feature of many e-mail and calendar systems makes it easy to invite the same group of people to weekly or monthly meetings.  Don’t be afraid to customize that list from meeting to meeting.  If you need someone new, invite them, but invite them to one meeting only.  There’s no need to grow the recurring invite list for a one-time need.
  2. Work Inside-Out – Look at your own calendar.  As a leader, you can set the right example by culling some of the meetings that you don’t need to attend from your calendar.  Expect opposition, but be prepared to stick to your guns.  Refer to point #1 above.  If you are truly needed for a specific decision, then you should be invited on an as-needed basis only.
  3. Don’t Play Politics – So often, meetings get too big because everyone is afraid NOT to invite this group or that group.  If a meeting invitation really causes feelings to be hurt, then there are bigger problems than the meeting.  You may get objections from those that complain about a lack of cooperation or information sharing.  That should never be the point or the result of shrinking a meeting list (or starting it at the proper size).  These objections can easily be overcome if you follow point #1 above and if you follow other good meeting practices like publishing notes of the meeting.  Follow your own advice.  If someone invites you to a meeting for purely political reasons, politely decline.
  4. Be Prepared – Your new meeting calendar is going to be leaner, so it should be more efficient.  Show up at meetings prepared to participate.  Promptly follow up with action items from previous meetings.  Finally, don’t be afraid to make a phone call before or after a meeting to ensure that others are doing the same.

There isn’t a camera in your meeting room, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t act like there is one.  The invitation is just the first step in a successful meeting, but it’s an important first step.  Your meeting won’t end with a very large man in an expensive suit hugging the commissioner on stage in New York, but hopefully it will at least produce more smiles and cheers (and not the inevitable jeers of an angry football fan).

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