Schedule Longer Meetings

This is not a mistake. Nor is it clickbait. When meetings are designed to meet a predefined goal, shorter is not always better. In fact, if you have a meaningful goal and a meeting is needed, you and your colleagues should better set enough time to allow you to achieve it and even add some buffer. 

But let’s start at the beginning. The general notion is that we have too many meetings with too many people. It’s a complaint one often hears from employees and managers alike. Everyone seems to agree that many (if not most) meetings are time-wasters. And if that’s the case, shortening the average meeting time seems like a good idea. We might still waste time, but less of it. We might not make meetings more effective by making them shorter, but they will be less ineffective by definition. 

But of course, when we consider whether something is effective, we think of it in the context of a predefined goal. Anyone who rightfully argues that a meeting is ineffective does so because they know it has not achieved its objective or that no objective was defined in the first place. When this is the case, it doesn’t really matter if a meeting is ten minutes or one hour long; it doesn’t really matter if three people are taking part in the meeting or a dozen. Well, of course, the amount of wasted resources is different, but either way, it is a waste. Making a meeting shorter or inviting fewer people makes sense economically, but it doesn’t turn the meeting into an effective meeting. It just reduces the problem without addressing its root cause. More importantly, it doesn’t help us promote any meaningful action to achieve our goals. In that sense, mechanically shortening meeting time has the same effect as Meet-Less Monday.

So, why make meetings longer

A meeting — any meeting — should be designed to achieve something concrete. I call the goal of a meeting the Initiative. By definition, the Initiative is something tangible that, once achieved, will help us promote a grander mission. For example, a meeting done in the context of a project should be designed to achieve a concrete Initiative that helps us promote the project’s targets. 

If we manage to follow this one rule and ensure we have defined an Initiative before setting up a meeting, the next step must be to ensure we can implement the Initiative during the meeting. If, for example, our Initiative is to reduce the project’s cost, the meeting will not be effective if we conclude it without concrete ideas. If the meeting is designed to review a proposed design, we must ensure it is concluded with a decision. No matter how well we manage the discussion, if we have to stop it before we reach a conclusion, we will fail to gain the desired benefit despite investing time in it. 

Sure, not every dilemma could be resolved in a single meeting, and not every challenge could be fully addressed in a predefined timeframe. At the same time, splitting the discussion by setting arbitrary constraints breaks the flow of the conversation and its momentum. The next meeting will require some recap and time to get things flowing again, and the time between the sessions should also be counted as lost time. Shortening the meeting to make it more effective often does the opposite. Prolonging the meeting to enable the team to conclude the discussion (or reach the point where some offline work has to be done) is significantly more effective. A longer, well-managed meeting costs less (when the extra time is really needed). 

To schedule an effective meeting, start with defining the Initiative and who are the people who can help you promote it. Then, estimate how much time you need to achieve the target of the meeting. Instead of aiming to make it shorter, add a buffer to the estimated time. If you estimate you will need 60 minutes for a deep, productive discussion, schedule the meeting for 80 minutes, for example. 

When you send the invitation, inform people that the meeting is designed for the estimated time and that the rest of the time might be used if needed. Manage the meeting with the aim of concluding before the buffer is used. In the best case, you will not need the extra time, and everyone will benefit from having their calendars blocked for some other deep work or as a break between meetings. But, if the discussion is not concluded and you wish to refrain from breaking the flow, you already have the buffer set for that. Instead of breaking off the meeting at its peak, you can use the extra time to continue the conversation and hopefully achieve the Initiative. Either way, it is a perfect utilization of time.

As long as you have a predefined Initiative for the meeting and the meeting is designed to achieve that goal, a longer meeting can actually be more effective than a meeting cut short due to an arbitrary limitation. So, yes: don’t hesitate to schedule longer meetings. When a meeting is concluded with a clear positive outcome, it is time well spent.

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