‘Let’s meet’ doesn’t have to be death knell for productivity

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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Two people sitting in a room is a conversation. Three is a meeting, and things start to deteriorate from there. As the number of participants grows, the odds increase that PowerPoint slides will be shown, meaningless “action items’’ distributed, pet projects trotted out, oratorical skills exhibited, and BlackBerrys checked.

“If I had to rate the average meeting in business, it would be a C-,’’ says Grant Freeland, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group in Boston. “There are too many of them. They don’t have agendas or clear goals. And too much is just information-sharing versus real discussion.’’

We’ve all been pulled into meetings where our only purpose seemed to be to warm a chair, and we’ve endured hour-long meetings still rambling at the two-hour mark. “Meetings are like a gas expanding to fill all available space,’’ quips Saul Kaplan, founder of Business Innovation Factory, a Rhode Island nonprofit.

So how do you hold meetings that accomplish something, without wasting participants’ time? I’ve been gathering advice from people who work hard to make meetings at their companies more productive. Here’s the top 12:

Focus on the basics. Larry Bohn’s advice could easily fit in a single Tweet. “Start with a stated goal. Have an agenda. Ruthlessly manage time and topics,’’ says Bohn, a venture capitalist at General Catalyst Partners in Cambridge. “Never hold a meeting without an agenda that has been prescreened by participants,’’ says Doug MacDougall, who runs a Wellesley public relations firm. Don’t be afraid to set aside issues that surface, but aren’t relevant to the meeting’s objective, says Kelley Lynn Kassa, director of marketing communications for Datawatch, a Chelmsford analytics software company.

Nix the chairs. A growing trend, intended to encourage succinct meetings, is to run them standing up. “This keeps people from filling time,’’ says Dharmesh Shah, chief technology officer at HubSpot, a Cambridge digital marketing firm. At Kayak, a travel site with a technology office in Concord, stand-up meetings often take place around the foosball table.

Start at an odd time. Sara Spalding, senior director of Microsoft’s New England Research and Development Center, suggests 10 minutes after the hour. It cuts down on stragglers, and makes it easier to start on time, she says.

Limit the size. Resist temptation to invite everyone in your e-mail address book. “Smaller is often more effective,’’ says Andy Ory, chief executive of Acme Packet, a communications company in Bedford. “Don’t invite everyone who may possibly be interested in the topic.’’

Bring a tennis ball. If the meeting involves a dozen or more people, “have a token that gets passed from speaker to speaker,’’ suggests Christopher Meyer, a consultant and business theorist who runs Monitor Talent, a speakers bureau in Cambridge. “The leader enforces the norm that no one can speak without obtaining the tennis ball, or bean bag, or whatever it is. It makes people conscious that they are asking for something valuable - the attention of the group.’’

Define the objective. Colin Angle, chief executive of Bedford-based iRobot Corp., says he defines ahead of time “what the desired outcome for each agenda item is.’’ Is it simply to provide an update, discuss and debate, or make a decision?

Get people off the fence. When there’s a decision to be made, “ask for a show of positions early,’’ advises Meyer. “People tend to hang back and see how the wind is blowing.’’ Get participants to rank or vote on the options before them, “then ask supporters of each to advocate their chosen options. It gets things going faster,’’ Meyer says

Avoid PowerPoint. Nearly everyone with whom I spoke viewed PowerPoint as a major cause of meeting bloat. “I have little patience for being read bullets on slides,’’ says Angle at iRobot. He says slides can be acceptable when used “to set up the problem to be discussed, or as a way of having support information available.’’

Try whiteboards and rapid prototyping. “I loathe large brainstorming meetings,’’ says Paul English, cofounder of Kayak. Instead, he gets three or four people together at a whiteboard, drawing pictures of different ways the travel site might display a new feature to a user. At the end of the meeting, someone will take a picture with their phone and e-mail it to the participants, so they have a record of the ideas. A designer will work on some mock-ups based on what was discussed (they’re allowed to take liberties). The next meeting is to “fight some more’’ over the design, English says, which eventually leads to the creation of working software that can be tested with users. “In general, we care about speed and getting users involved quickly,’’ English says.

Make one day meeting-free. The Pennsylvania office of Shire PLC, a pharmaceutical company with research and manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts, has designated “meeting-free Mondays’’ as a way for people to “catch up on e-mails, work on projects, and ensure that they are fully prepared for the week ahead,’’ says Shire spokeswoman Jessica Cotrone. That weekly holiday may soon spread to Shire’s Massachusetts offices.

Invent fresh formats. It’s hard to get excited about hearing a litany of status reports. Why not do something new? At athenahealth, which helps doctors digitize their paperwork, salespeople convene twice a week for “Grand Rounds,’’ which lasts just fifteen minutes. An individual salesperson might talk about how they present a product feature, share something they’ve learned about a common customer problem, or get feedback, says Linda Cole, the Watertown company’s director of learning and development.

Don’t be prompt. My favorite advice for meeting participants came from John W. Henry, the founder of an asset management firm and majority owner of the Boston Red Sox. “I try to show up near the end of meetings,’’ he writes via e-mail. “Very effective time-saver for me.’’

I disavow responsibility if Henry’s strategy renders you suddenly unemployed.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.