Today’s business scene is truly unique. It seems like every other company that went public in the past few years started in a coffee shop, in a dorm room or as a side project — which makes many people think that it’s easier than ever to start, scale and run a successful business. But as founders, executives, managers and their teams know, it’s quite the opposite.

With so many organizations, both young and experienced, striving to disrupt their industry and be the new trend- or standard-setter, there is so much pressure on their employees to deliver, push for innovation, and constantly refine their products and services. As collaboration and diversity have proven to be two of the biggest drivers of innovative thought and agile behavior, they have quickly become popular workplace trends.

Too Many Meetings

The problem is that while some organizations have made a genuine commitment to transforming the way they do things, others simply doubled up on meetings, invited people from across the board to attend them, and rushed to check the box next to “collaborative and diverse environment” on their strategic plans. A common complaint from employees is that their calendars are booked solid with meetings from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day — weeks in advance — and they don’t feel like they or their teams are achieving any significant results.

Many employees say that there are too many meetings, some of which they personally find unnecessary, which leaves them little to no time for deep individual work. Even the meetings that do matter are mostly ineffective, because the attendants are often busy catching up on their own work and are more interested in leaving early than in engaging in productive and/or difficult conversations.

When asked what percentage of meetings are useful, employees give answers ranging from 0% to 80%, meaning that there is a lot of room for improvement — and a huge amount of time being wasted in organizations across the world. If you are able to remove meetings that yield no value, perhaps by switching to email or instant messaging updates instead, do it. Everyone will have their time back, which they can better spend on high-return activities. Many meetings are simply historic invites, handed down as teams change but that have no purpose today. Others are set as a default of one hour but really only need 15 to 20 minutes. Both of these scenarios are great opportunities for challenge and change, especially when compounded across the year and with many attendees joining in.

Common advice for organizations that face this problem is to review all meetings and invite the participants to cocreate what they should look like, if they are necessary at all. The next step is to implement a set of mindsets, practices and tools that weed out excessive meetings and/or no-value time commitments, make the important ones more organized, and incentivize people to contribute to discussions. Practices include committing to starting and ending meetings on time, following an agenda, and asking attendants to leave their phones and laptops at the door. While all of these strategies are easy to execute and may even bring some immediate results, they don’t always reach the root of the problem. Therefore, they often prove to be unsustainable changes with insignificant impact over time.

The Heart of the Matter

If you really think about it, the real problem isn’t the excessiveness and ineffectiveness of meetings. They are merely the symptoms of deeper and more complex cultural issues. Why do you feel like you need to set up another meeting? Is it because putting everyone in one room under supervision is the only way your team will talk to each other and focus on shared, rather than individual, goals? Is collaboration really taking place when you manage to remove the distractions (such as laptops and phones), or does it seem like people still hold back their thoughts and ideas?

These observations uncover problems that are much more serious than poor time management. What they really show is a lack of candor, accountability and co-elevation. This situation then prevents them from openly sharing with each other, making a genuine commitment to the goals of the team and organization, and building meaningful relationships — all of which are critical drivers of business success.

Implementing High-return Practices

Before you start building a master plan to tackle these newly uncovered issues in your team — or fall into despair — let me save you some time and energy and share the good news: You can change the behaviors of people in your organization by implementing small practices called high-return practices. Unlike the practices discussed earlier, which focus on process, high-return practices are designed to transform the way teammates build relationships with each other and the mindsets they hold while doing so.

Many high-return practices are specifically for meetings. For example, red flag rules are a team’s rules of engagement during meetings. Each one starts with the team manager and the team thinking about the behavioral attributes of a successful meeting, turning them into a goal, committing to that goal and then creating rules that will hold them to the promises they’ve made.

If your ultimate goal is to foster collaboration, diversity and inclusion, for example, you can start by making a commitment to establishing a psychologically safe environment in your meetings where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts. An example of a rule that could help you and your teammates stay accountable to this promise is “Vegas rules until notified,” which means that anything shared in the meeting should be kept confidential unless otherwise agreed.

Once you’ve developed team agreement on a list of rules, write them down on a flip chart or a whiteboard, and display them where everyone can see them. If it’s a standing meeting, type them up and email them to everyone so they can refer to them at the start of each meeting. Of course, you won’t achieve trust, candor and collaboration overnight, but in time, your red flag rules will help you and your team refer back to the behaviors that you are trying to achieve and make sure that the decisions you make and the actions you take align with them.

Whenever you encounter a process that you would like to change, it’s always easier to identify immediate triggers and remove them — for example, people who show up late or type on their phones during meetings. In order to achieve a significant change that will have a powerful impact, however, you have to look deeper and think about the root causes of these behaviors. Once you understand them, don’t let their depth and complexity intimidate you and make you settle for what seems like an easier, immediate solution. Embark on a bigger journey, take small but thoughtful steps toward transforming your behaviors, and invite others to join. You will see exponentially higher results.

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