If meetings have taken over your life, try the 25 minute version

Australian Financial Review

Productivity experts pass on their tips to help you work smarter, not harder.

We need meetings. We need them at work because when they work, they are valuable. Clear actions get set, decisions are made and the whole business moves forward.

What we don’t need is for meetings to waste our time, money and resources. What we need is a 25-minute meeting. One that is short, sharp and productive, that gets the job done efficiently and gets more value in way less time.

Having only 25 minutes creates clarity about what’s important. If we have only 25 minutes, we had better be focused on what we need to get done. This forces us to think about the top two or three things to discuss.

Having a sense of urgency drives immediate action. We need to do it and we need to do it now. Unless it’s urgent it won’t get done; if it’s urgent you will do it immediately.

There are three areas you need to look at when setting up and running an effective 25-minute meeting: purpose (why we are here?); people (who do we need?); and process (how will we work?).

And before you invite people to a meeting, think about why you are having it in the first place. This purpose will probably fall into three broad categories: inform (give, get and share information); align (make a decision or agree on a plan); resolve (come up with a solution to a problem or conflict).

To figure out the purpose for your meeting, think about the outcome. Once you know that, you can decide if a meeting is the best way to achieve it. Most of the time, it’s not.

A 25-minute meeting works best for small groups: no more than five. That means you need the right people in the room. When you have the wrong type or number of people in a meeting, you will get diminishing levels of return. If all else fails, take the advice of Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos: if you can’t feed all the participants with two pizzas, there are too many people there.

You also need to consider why each person is needed. Ask yourself: what role will they play? How will they give, or get, value from their time? Let every participant know the role they are expected to play so that they come prepared and show up ready to play that role.

Once you know the why and who of your meeting, you can focus on how you will achieve your purpose. Too often we organise a meeting, announce the topic we will discuss as we walk in, ask everyone, “What do you think?” and open it up for discussion.

A friend told me about a meeting he attended that had a subject of “goal setting” in the email invite and no other information. When everyone arrived, no one really knew what was expected of them, or what the outcome of the meeting was supposed to be. Zero preparation had been done, so another meeting had to be scheduled because all they did in this one was discuss the purpose of the meeting.

They realised the purpose was alignment, not goal setting. The project had a number of deliverables and agreement was needed to determine responsibilities and time frames. By the next meeting, people came prepared to share their high-level plans and projected time frames. This meeting took 25 minutes.

To get the best out of a 25-minute meeting, you need a tight structure, which includes a timeline for the 25 minutes. I have adapted a model formulated by Jim Channon, Frank Burns and Linda Nelson.

What are we here for? What is the context surrounding the meeting? What do people have to contribute to the discussion? Spend a maximum of 12 minutes.

What are the two or three things that require our attention, or are driving our decision making or problem solving? Spend a maximum of eight minutes.

What else do we need to do? What actions are required? What will happen next? Spend a maximum of five minutes.

No matter where you are in the discussion, at the 20-minute point you need to stop, take stock and agree to the next steps. It’s OK to agree that you need to schedule another 25 minutes. You either take an immediate break before the next 25 minutes, or schedule the next meeting there and then.

With 25-minute meetings, it’s likely there aren’t a lot of notes to be taken, but documenting agreements is important. The best way to do this is to email all the participants after the meeting to remind them of what was agreed. Each person should walk away with something to do or to work on.

This is an edited extract from The 25-minute Meeting: Half the Time, Double the Impact, by Donna McGeorge.