The Art of Meetings: How to Design High-Performance Meetings

Whether physical or remote, the number of meetings has been growing steadily over the past decades, but is every single one efficient and effective? Our colleagues at Porsche Consulting have done some research and collected a few golden rules on how to run high-performance meetings characterized by little waste of time and high-quality decisions.

Over the last years, the “meeting culture” has acquired a bad reputation. Many meetings are held as a habit and they often lack structure. Within the last months, we all have learned that a remote meeting has many advantages. We face a window of opportunity to challenge and optimize the way we hold meetings and redefine the meeting calendar, now.

Our meta-analysis shows that 34 percent of manager meetings are considered unproductive or unnecessary. With managers having 23 hours of meetings a week, that’s eight hours wasted per week. In total managers spend about 40 to 50 percent of their time in meetings and a usual meeting of US managers costs more than 1000 dollars per hour — and that is just the salary. In the US, this translates into an annual loss of approximately 400 billion dollars.

Four ideas to free your calendar

To counter this development, it is crucial to systematically examine the approach to meetings and look closely at meeting structure, efficiency, and effectiveness. Otherwise, managers are in danger of getting caught up in an overpowering system of manifold meetings — whether formal or informal, traditional, or agile, in-person or electronic — which will inevitably end up consuming them.

Porsche Consulting has developed a framework that combines structural and procedural approaches for optimizing meetings. There are several hacks, but in this article, we want to focus on four specific ways to run high-performance meetings.

There are several ways to improve meetings

1. As many as necessary, as few as possible

Whether due to mailing lists that have grown over time or to the fear of excluding an employee from supposedly important decisions, invitations to meetings are often sent to an excessive number of people. While there may be good reasons for this, a huge number of participants can inhibit the ability to reach a consensus on decisions, and thereby lower the meeting’s efficiency. The productivity of a gathering has been shown to decrease as a function of the increase in participants.

The principle of “as many as necessary, as few as possible”, should be applied when determining the number of people to invite. One famous piece of advice regarding meeting size comes from the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos: he embraces the “two-pizza rule”, which is a metaphor for restricting participants to a number that two pizzas could satisfy.

This simple trick prevents gatherings from becoming unmanageable. Even considering the size of American pizzas, that would mean no more than five to eight people. Another method is to define the number of attendees by the participating departments. This principle would limit participants to a maximum of two per department: one with the requisite decisional authority (the decision-maker), who can bring another with specialized expertise (the content expert). The latter can also represent the former and make decisions in their stead. Additional ways of optimizing participant numbers include issuing tickets for a meeting and limiting the agenda slots.

2. Keep it short

Calendar tools have standard quarter- or half-hour blocks, but this should not prevent individual meetings from being scheduled for unorthodox periods. Can the content be discussed in forty-eight minutes? Or even thirty-five? More and more managers findings two-hour meetings in the calendars and the initiators forget that discussions of more than an hour are tiring and time-consuming.

It is surprising how many items can be handled in half an hour if this short time span is clearly announced from the start. Discussions should therefore only be allowed to exceed thirty minutes in exceptional cases, and only when explicitly specified in advance, e.g., if the number of items on the agenda cannot be treated otherwise. And in fact, project experience shows that most meetings of more than an hour can be shortened by up to 25 percent without reducing the quality of their decisions or topic coverage. Setting the default duration time in Outlook to 30 minutes is a powerful nudge management intervention to change organizational behaviour.

3. Delegate decision authority

As soon as managers start to challenge certain processes, a hive of activity immediately breaks out. Countless coordination loops quickly kick into action and meetings are convened with the sole aim of presenting multiple options to the boss on the “big day” — even when the operational unit has already identified their favourite option in their rounds of meetings.

By contrast, high-performance meetings sharpen, expand and optimize the content without watering it down by compulsively including multiple decisional circuits and cascades. Companies shift their decisional authority to lower reporting levels by generating an appropriate framework for meetings, which enables more efficient and autonomous decisions making. This has the advantage that decisions are made by people who can anticipate the effects best.

Instead of making all decisions, the relevant supervisors should serve as coaches and central guides who fully trusts the autonomous decisions of employees and experts and knows to intervene only in the event of an escalation.

4. Eliminating meetings altogether

Meetings make sense when information should be processed; when uncertainty, problems, and conflicts need to be resolved and especially when major decisions are in order. They can spread knowledge and encourage interdisciplinary exchange.

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

But too often meetings are scheduled without questioning their necessity. When they are only conducted to exchange information, they could be easily replaced by an e-mail or by holding individual office talks.

A simple thought experiment can help managers to assess whether a meeting is the best option: imagine that it is not possible to discuss conventionally. What should be done to get the requisite input if a meeting is not a feasible mode of communication? Only if digital channels, two-person talks, or a working lunch will not suffice, a meeting should be held.

Window of opportunity

The coming months provide a unique opportunity to design and establish high-performance meetings on a large scale. Executives can make use of the high willingness to change once the pandemic crises are coming to an end and business life will come to the new normal. Capturing this opportunity requires precise planning, preparation, and execution of the new normal of meetings. Now is a good time to rethink and renew the meeting landscape and therefore save time and further enhance decision making quality in meetings.

Dr. Roman Hipp, Senior Partner at Porsche Consulting

Nick Göller, Senior Consultant at Porsche Consulting

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