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Influencing behaviour: Stop the meeting madness

Recently, an article over at Business Insider caught my attention. It was titled: This Startup Forbids Meetings On Wednesdays. It talks about the task management startup Asana and how it introduced the ‘No Meeting Wednesday’ policy to allow employees to focus on getting work done in one big block.

There are two incredible productivity drains in organisations – email and meetings. Countless times I have heard people complaining about the amount of emails and meetings they are subjected to. During the day they get hardly any work done. They feel most productive very early morning before the email/meeting madness starts or in the evening or worse on the weekend. That is when people get work done!

Asana’s ‘No Meeting Wednesday’ policy did not only catch my attention because of its radical shift, but because I had a very similar idea for one of my project engagements last year. In this case however we are talking about a 40,000 employee strong, well-established company. As part of the engagement I initiated a Change Acceleration Program. Included in the program was a catalogue of over 70 change tactics to help introduce a new (social) Intranet (SharePoint 2013) by influencing employees’ and managers’ behaviour. One of these tactics was called ‘Meeting-Free-Fridays’ and another one ‘Email-Free-Fridays’!

Now, before I explain any further, I believe meetings are not bad per se. Some are absolutely necessary including for team building. But over the years we have been conditioned to set up and invite for meetings no matter what. There are meetings for status updates, reviews, planning, decision-making. Sometimes there are even meetings to plan other meetings! This needs to stop! We need to unlearn the meeting madness and learn again when meetings are useful and when they are not. This is where the ‘Meeting-Free-Friday’ comes in.

John Stepper introduced me to the Dragonfly Effect in one of his blog posts. John is one of my favourite bloggers, because he shows you how to apply dry theory and frameworks to real business problems. In one of the posts he applied the Dragonfly Effect to reduce his company’s printing cost. The elements of the Dragonfly Effect framework are:

  1. “Focus: Identify a single concrete and measurable goal.
  2. Grab attention: Make someone look. Cut through the noise…with something unexpected, visceral, and visual.
  3. Engage: Create a personal connection, accessing higher emotions through deep empathy, authenticity, and telling a story. Engaging is about empowering an audience enough to want to do something themselves.
  4. Take action: Enable and empower others to take action…move audience members from being customers to becoming team members.”

How could you apply the Dragonfly Effect to change behaviour regarding meetings by introducing a “Meeting-Free-Friday”?

Pick a clear goal: “Reduce meeting hours by 20%.”

Ideally, the percentage could be translated into hours, as this is more tangible to people. In some cases it might be even possible to get aggregated, anonymous data from employees’ calendars on the number of meetings / hours of meetings per week. Of course, the data would need to be sanitised to filter out time blockers (‘meetings’ that employees put into their calendars to block time to get work done!) or meetings unrelated to work (e.g. lunch appointments).

Make people care about it: “Work smart not hard! Avoid working late or weekends by decreasing your hours spent in meetings by 20%!”

You should try to play with the intrinsic motivation of people, rather than saying that employees can become more productive if they reduce the hours spent in meetings. Increasing employees’ productivity might be the company’s objective, but not necessarily employees’.

Make it easy for them to change: “Here are 3 great alternatives.”

Just because people are motivated to change, does not mean they are able to change! Introducing a ‘Meeting-Free-Friday’ is already a first step, as it gives employees an excuse not to schedule or accept a meeting that day! In a small company this will be much easier to introduce than in a large organisation. Way too much politics and concerns would stop this initiative forever. Thus, better to consider this initiative as an awareness and education campaign. Participation is voluntary!

Highlight advantages and disadvantages of meetings (visually). If you relate this campaign to your new social intranet or collaboration platform, highlight ways of using these platforms to avoid excessive use of meetings. Create use cases and write user stories to make it more tangible for employees and managers.

At the same time you can also introduce material about meeting etiquette. What makes an effective meeting? How to make sure only the right people attend? What is the right duration of a meeting? Remember that this campaign serves primarily awareness and education purposes. Technology is not always the answer.

Give them feedback and stories to keep changing: “This month we reduced meeting hours by 12%. That translates into whopping X hours!”

Feedback is highly important for influencing behaviour and initiating change. If you can, try to get hold of factual data about the number of meetings (see Step 1) and what impact the ‘Meeting-Free-Friday’ had.  Highlight new achievements, no matter how little they are in the beginning. Ask ‘Meeting-Free-Friday’ participants to write a small story about how they use the new intranet, collaboration platform etc. to avoid meetings. Ask them to be as specific as possible. For example, what type of meetings did they use to set up / attend? How are they using other communication and collaboration tools to keep the number of meetings to a minimum? How has this impacted their work life?

This campaign should not be a one-off. You need to be able to sustain it until the new learned behaviours have become the norm and have been institutionalised by individuals and the organisation as a whole. Furthermore, the outcome does not necessarily need to be meeting-free fridays! It’s about (re)educating people about using meetings effectively and potentially using other forms of communication and collaboration to avoid the meeting madness!

Change is hard! But you need to start somewhere and somehow. If it is a voluntary participation be realistic about its initial success. You might only get a few people to join your movement. Embrace them! Celebrate them! If you can spare another 3 minutes, I encourage you to watch this Ted talk by Derek Sivers. He talks about how to start a movement and lessons learned. It’s fun and informative!

‘Meeting-Free-Fridays’ – It may sound stupid in the beginning, but once everyone does it, it will be the new cool! Luis Suarez (the man whose mission it is to kill email) called for it in his long but excellent blog post and I am happy to join in. Let’s stop the meeting madness!


© Picture Credit: Christoph Schmaltz

3 thoughts on “Influencing behaviour: Stop the meeting madness”

  1. Excellent post!

    One thing I would say is that a “Meeting-Free-Friday” is probably not a good idea. Meetings are the best way to ensure people are actually not in the pub drinking on Fridays ;) Make it a “Meeting-Free-Tuesday/Wed/Thursday”.

    On a very serious note – this is a really good idea!

    At one of the companies I worked, one of the teams had a weekly “email and phone-free day”. It was hard to get people used to it but after a few months, they totally bought into the idea.

    I remember them getting really angry when someone from a different team called to demand an email response from them on that day!

  2. What is the difference between a meeting and a conversation?
    Talk is at the core of organising and we can never get away from that.
    The problem is the obsession with productivity which leads to focused meeting which produce nothing but regimented ritualistis soulless talk as opposed to having generative conversations that illuminate and coordinate action in organisations.
    Even the whole anti-email culture is rooted in this paradigm of siloed work. Email like attention needs to be filtered. Establish ways of work. if you a RASCI organisation perhaps cc’s are for inform. If action is required – start header with ACTION, etc.

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