Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost, and Leigh Weiss for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.
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Effective meetings produce better business decisions. Yet too many decision meetings are doomed from the get-go. You can do better.
“I spend nearly all of my time in meetings,” admitted one top-team member to us recently, “and I don’t get to sit down to think on my own until after 6:00 p.m.”
Many leaders will empathize. In a recent McKinsey survey, 61 percent of executives said that at least half the time they spent making decisions, much of it surely spent in meetings, was ineffective. And just 37 percent of respondents said their organizations’ decisions were both high-quality and timely.
How can senior managers get better, faster business decisions from the meetings they attend or lead? Certainly, getting steeped in best practices is wise, as there is a wealth of good thinking available on the topic of decision making (see sidebar, “Read me: Quick-hit recommendations for decision makers”). In the meantime, we recommend looking closer to home, namely at the preparation that should happen (but perhaps doesn’t) before your own meetings.
Try this exercise: take out your phone, open your calendar, and review today’s remaining meetings against the three questions below to see if you can spot any of the interrelated “fatal flaws” that most commonly sabotage meeting effectiveness. Besides improving the quality and speed of your team’s decisions and helping you make better use of your time, we hope the exercise helps you shed light on the underlying organizational dynamics and mind-sets that may be seeding dysfunction in the first place.
Question 1: Should we even be meeting at all?
Removing superfluous meetings is perhaps the single biggest gift to an executive’s productivity. Start by examining your recurring meetings, as these are a fertile place for otherwise useful and timely decision topics to mutate in unproductive ways.
Consider the case of the healthcare company that held a recurring “growth committee” meeting that in principle should have been making decisions about strategic partnerships, M&A, and new lines of business but in practice rarely did. Meanwhile, the company’s executive committee (which included several of the growth-committee members, along with the CEO) also met routinely to cover the same ground—and was making the decisions.
Why the disconnect? Left unexamined, the growth-committee meeting had evolved over several years into a discussion forum and holding pen for topics to be decided by the executive committee. Moreover, the range of subjects the growth committee covered had widened considerably beyond its original remit. The meeting was, in effect, not only redundant but also confusing to managers further down in the organization about what decisions were being made and where.
Poor clarity around decision rights encouraged wide-ranging discussions but not decisions, and over time this behavior became a habit in meetings—a habit that exacerbated a general lack of accountability among some executives.
While the company went on to remedy the situation and successfully streamline where decisions about growth priorities were made, the issues the CEO and top team had to confront went well beyond eliminating redundant meetings. For example, poor clarity around decision rights encouraged wide-ranging discussions but not decisions, and over time this behavior became a habit in meetings—a habit that exacerbated a general lack of accountability among some executives. Moreover, the team lacked the psychological safety to take interpersonal risks and thus feared making the “wrong” decision.1 Together, these intertwined factors encouraged leaders to escalate decisions up the chain of command, as the growth committee had done. Had the CEO attacked the symptoms by only announcing fixes from on high (say, blanket restrictions on the number of meetings allowed, or introducing meeting-free blackout days—both actions we have seen frustrated leaders take), the problems would have continued.
This is not to say that time management isn’t part of the solution. It is, and if ingrained habits or cultural expectations encourage meetings as your company’s default mode, then soul searching is in order. If you are one of those leaders who reflexively accepts meeting invitations as they appear in your calendar, then you should hit pause. Your goal should be to treat your leadership capacity—a finite resource—as seriously as your company treats financial capital (an equally finite one).
When recurring meetings are needed, check with the other decision makers to ensure the frequency is right (can weekly become monthly?). Look also to see if the decision might be best made by an individual. Remember: Delegating a decision to someone doesn’t mean that the person can’t still consult others for guidance. It just probably doesn’t require an entire committee to do so.
Finally, it’s tough to spot problems when no one is looking. At the healthcare company, like at many organizations, it wasn’t anyone’s responsibility to ensure that senior-management meetings had clear, non-overlapping purposes. A chief of staff can be invaluable here, as we will see next.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
The authors wish to thank Iskandar Aminov, Elizabeth Foote, Kanika Kakkar, and Sandra Welchering for their contributions to this article.