Beyond Walking Out: Empowering Productive Meetings from the Start

Instead of planning to have people to walk out of valueless meetings, train everyone to ensure meetings have value before they walk in.

Last April, Elon Musk sent email to employees explaining that they needed to increase production. At the end of the letter, he shared six productivity tips including:

“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

Musk appears to share his opinion about how to handle a waste-of-time meeting with President Trump, who walked out of budget negotiations with Congress in January, and more recently out of a meeting concerning sanctions with Kim Jong Un

With both leaders, the message is clear. Should they find themselves in a meeting where they feel they’re not adding value or getting value, they walk out. 

These are two extremely busy, wealthy, important people, both in charge of making decisions that impact the lives of countless others. Their time is immeasurably valuable, and of course, it should never be spent in a waste-of-time meeting. 

Frankly, no one should have their time squandered in bad meetings. Which makes you wonder, shouldn’t there be a way to prevent all this time-squandering? How do these waste-of-time meetings get on the schedule in the first place?

If you are a business leader, I agree with these gentlemen. No way, no how should you sit through a terrible meeting. But rather than walking out of meetings that you determine valueless (after your work has already been interrupted and you’re in a room full of people who will absolutely feel disrupted, if not downright panicked, by your departure), here’s a better idea. 

Establish a system that ensures each meeting has a clear value before it’s allowed on the calendar in the first place. Instead of meetings that are a free-for-all, where individuals just do what they feel like (for instance, leaving a meeting), you (the leader) design a structure that creates consistency and a mutual expectation of performance. Meetings are about unlocking the value in a group or team rather than glorifying the brilliance of an individual, requiring a totally different approach to work.

Here’s how. 

1. Train employees how to run worthwhile meetings. 

An effective meeting has a clear purpose, a known set of desired outcomes, and a plan for guiding the group to those outcomes, all of which should all be sent out in advance as part of the meeting invitation. 

Microsoft Outlook won’t force anyone to think through these details when they add a meeting, so expectations concerning proper meeting hygiene must be set by leaders.

Organizations with consistently high-value meetings take this further by establishing internal meeting schools where employee learns essential meeting skills, like how to define the meeting purpose, how to keep the invite list tight, and how to participate effectively. Then, the best of the best develop an in-house core of meeting facilitators who can lead the more challenging meetings and help out anyone struggling to make meeting time valuable.

2. Own your meeting culture.

Meetings are not sentient. They do not “take over,” “occupy,” “proliferate,” or conduct any of the many aggressive assaults on an organization’s time of which they are accused. 

Meetings are always created and used by people. They’re a communication tool–an especially powerful communication tool–and like all power tools they can do great harm when wielded thoughtlessly, and great service when used well. 

After ensuring teams have the essential meeting skills they need to use this tool safely, leaders must establish performance criteria that guide how to use meetings effectively in your organization. 

For example, Amazon famously established a “no PowerPoint” rule (they read reports and proposals instead) and a “two pizza” rule (no more people in a meeting than can be fed by two large pizzas).Behind those two rules lies an expectation that people will arrive prepared to discuss topics deeply with a small group in a tightly focused meeting.  

Other organizations insist that each meeting begins with a moment of silent meditation. And have you ever been to a meeting held using the Chatham House rule? This rule says that information for the meeting can be shared, but not any identifying details, which creates safety for discussing sensitive issues. Or Vegas rules, which ask for total confidentiality? These are simple ways to communicate the values that matter–the expectations–for those meetings.

If you don’t have any expectations regarding meetings in place for your organization, I recommend starting with making every meeting optional. That way, everyone can decide whether to walk into those possibly valueless meetings beforehand and save us all the drama of their self-important walk out.

Because really, walking out of a meeting you agreed to attend is just rude.

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