Assuming you agree that time is valuable, ask yourself these questions:
If your answers are leaving you feeling frustrated, you likely also realize this is a pervasive problem and not limited to just your current circumstances. That said, you could have more control and take greater accountability and start to see the scales tip in the direction of more effective meetings.
The Power of Goals
Have goals going into a meeting or figure out what your single objective is. Even better are goals set jointly since the purpose of a meeting is to engage in conversation with others and it’s more productive to share one another’s expectations. Tied to this is the importance of making sure your goals are reasonable given the time available. And, be sure the relevant information is made available, preferably in advance or at least at the start of the meeting.
The Power of Agenda
An agenda sends a signal - it shows you are prepared, sets expectations, and allows you to involve other people. Using an agenda gives the meeting focus, creating efficiency at the start, and is a good reference throughout to keep people on task. (There are certainly other facilitation skills beyond agenda setting that can ensure the meeting stays on track.)
If you have analytical people attending who need to think about certain things before the meeting, they’ll appreciate and you’ll benefit from sending them information ahead of time (note: if you haven’t planned what you’re going to talk about then you won’t know what to send). If you have a lot of data, you’ll want them to have had time to analyze beforehand rather than being distracted in the meeting, when the point should be to jointly come up with potential solutions.
When you set an agenda you are in control. Even if you can’t guarantee that others will review it in advance and come prepared, the time you spent - considering your expectations, determining objectives, involving others, matching time and content, and sharing information - allows you to come (more) prepared and hopefully leads to better outcomes.
Agenda-setting and defining goals can be simple or complex depending on the parties involved (e.g., internal or external) as well as type of meeting (e.g., negotiation, project kick-off, weekly status meeting, feedback conversation, and so on). Yet, regardless of these factors, these steps are assuredly worth the investment of your (and their) time.
For those of you hoping for a bit more radical advice, consider the approach that some companies are apparently opting for, which is to eliminate meeting waste – e.g., they select a certain day of the week and do not hold any meetings. For more creative ideas like this, check out Jason Fried, TEDxMidwest presenter of “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work”, and co-author, with David Heinemeier Hansson, of the book Rework, about new ways to conceptualize working and creating.