Meetings: what Warren Buffet found

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

The January 18 issue of USA Today included an interview with former Coca Cola president and Berkshire Hathaway board member Don Keogh, which contained this revealing item:

Out of Time

Out of Time

Speaking of Berkshire Hathaway chairman and America’s second richest man Warren Buffet, Keogh observed, “Buffet bought a company a couple of years ago. In three months, they eliminated 54 committees and 10,000 man hours of monthly meetings.”

Many of us who have worked in large corporations (and some small companies, too) have experienced the sinking feeling that results from viewing a calendar clogged with too many unproductive meetings.

Reid Hastie, Robert S. Hamada Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, sounded the same theme in the New York Times job section that same day, with an article entitled, “Meetings Are a Matter of Precious Time”.

Hastie points out that the main reason we don’t make meetings more productive is that we don’t value our time properly. The people who call meetings and those who attend them are not thinking about time as their most valuable resource.

When I ask clients to consider which of their tasks may not be as productive as they’d like, meetings usually surface as a prime time-stealing culprit.

Hastie offers specific suggestions for making meetings productive, two I endorse and one I emphatically do not:

1. Whoever calls a meeting should be explicit about its objectives.

The meeting’s leader should ensure that objectives are in writing well before the meeting. My clients who value their own time and their company’s resources learn to “push back” when summoned to a meeting that lacks a clear purpose. Either agree to a clear and worthwhile goal for your participation, or don’t go.

2. Those who call a meeting and those who attend should think carefully about the opportunity costs of a meeting.

Too many meetings are called without a firm agenda in place, allowing the conversation to swell to fill whatever time is available. And many (most?) meetings include too many participants.

3. After productive or unproductive meetings, assign credit or blame to the person in charge. Then, if people have track records of leading ineffective meetings, don’t let them lead future sessions.

I strongly disagree with Hastie in this instance. There is no special skill involved in leading a productive meeting that cannot be coached and learned. Establishing a clear objective and keeping to the declared task are two organizing skills that everyone needs to practice to be effective in their work. Assigning blame is largely counterproductive.

I would add a fourth productivity practice:

4. Develop a practice for recording all decisions to be made, so that notes can be easily shared with those who didn’t attend. This makes it easier to keep the “guest list” down, too. Those involved in the project or whose work will feel the impact of any decisions can get the critical information they need without spending an hour sharing the whole process.

Learning to make the best use of your time is one of the foundational productivity practices I cover in my GO System workshops. To learn more, contact me by phone or email here.

Do you have a meeting triumph or tragedy to share? Let’s hear it. Leave a comment here.


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