How Long Should We Meet?

There is always one meeting that your group has that never seems to go well. For a lot of groups their planning meetings fit this description. After so many poor planning meetings, the group decides they are taking too long, they try to shorten it instead.

The problem is that it doesn’t help.

Artificially shortening a meeting that doesn’t go well is a bit like hurrying through a meal you don’t like. Sure, you’ve ended the experience, but you haven’t addressed the issue of getting a bad meal. What if you also cooked it?

For many organizations, meetings are merely a bunch of people in a room with a topic to work through. The idea of facilitating them with a structure that lends itself to achieving a purpose is elusive. Without structured facilitation, numerous dysfunctions arise. That, in turn, leads to frustration, and eventually people trying to shorten or eliminate the meeting.

Have you ever seen a transformational goal around eliminating meetings? If you have, it was an admission that the company has systemically bad meetings. The problem is that getting rid of them didn’t also eliminate the purpose of them or make the few meetings that exist any better.

While explaining how to facilitate well and properly is beyond the scope of an article, I will give one tip that is a good first step to fixing meetings that are going poorly.

State the purpose of the meeting and confirm that understanding with the group.

Sounds pretty obvious, but most meetings don’t have a stated purpose. People enter the room, wondering what will happen or what the meeting is about. A purposeless meeting is a perfect environment for dysfunction to thrive.

So, maybe something you can do is think about a meeting that people are trying to shorten and ask, “What was the purpose of the meeting?” More than likely you’ll get different answers.

With that purpose clarified, you could then ask, “Well, knowing that purpose, how long should we take to accomplish that purpose?”

Note I’m not asking how long the meeting is. I’m asking how long we should take to achieve a purpose. Realistically the facilitator can plan their meeting appropriately, but at this point, we need information.

If the group only believes the purpose is worth thirty minutes of their time, so be it. Structure your meeting to achieve that purpose in thirty minutes. However, many will not try to shorten the time it takes to achieve a goal. They will say things on the order of hours and days. This is a strong clue that the purpose is relevant, but the facilitation is poor.

Once you know that, you can have some honest conversations about correcting the meetings that are frustrating people. Maybe have them read Collaboration Explained, or get someone with training to help.

Next time, instead of worrying about how long the meeting takes, think about how much you’d give to accomplish a purpose.