Make Meetings Work: Fight the PowerPoint
PowerPoint overload! Hundred-twenty-minute snoozefests! Inconclusive conclusions! We all know how meetings can go wrong. In this fifth in a series of posts on personal productivity, Bob Pozen, chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, tells HBR's Justin Fox how to structure meetings that don't waste anybody's time.
JF: What are your rules for meetings?
First, almost every meeting can be completed in one hour or at most 90 minutes. At 90 minutes, people turn off — they get tired and they stop paying attention. If you try to extend a meeting beyond 90 minutes, the diminishing returns are staggering.
Second, you should have meeting materials delivered the day before or the night before by email. All materials should have a one-page executive summary, and the assumption should be that everyone has read at least the summary before the meeting starts.
There are so many meetings at which the presenters just slog through 20 or 30 PowerPoint slides. But they've already sent the material in advance to the participants so this is a terrible waste of time. In my view, the presenter should give a five or 10 minute introduction to set the stage and tee up the key questions, and leave the rest of the time for discussion and formulation of an action plan.
JF: If somebody comes with a PowerPoint presentation, do you just say: "Look, you already gave me those slides, so I don't want to see these PowerPoints?"
Usually, I let them go on for a little while to see if this is just an introduction. But if they start to drone on, I would say, "Look, you've already given us this material, which we've all read. And there's some really excellent analysis in this material. So let's see if you can focus us on the key points we need to discuss and decide upon."
JF: What's your strategy in structuring a meeting?
There are two typical styles for leading meetings, both of which are problematic. One is the very open leader who says, "OK, let's have everyone's ideas about what we should do." But that leader has not given any structure to the conversation, so the participants can waste a lot of time. The other sort of leader is authoritarian. He or she says: "This is my view about where this project should head. And here are the steps I believe we need to take." Then the participants are likely to be afraid to say that this whole plan makes no sense.
I take a third approach, which could be called the rebuttable presumption. It is designed to focus the discussion and encourage debate. I might say, "Here is the area where we really need to do something. But it is a difficult area and there are several ways to address the problems. Now this is my tentative view of the path we should take, but I could be wrong. I want you to feel free to disagree and offer alternatives." And then you have to be willing actually to discard or modify your plan if someone comes up with a better one.
If someone comes up with a truly new idea in a meeting, I embrace it enthusiastically. How many times do you hear a totally innovative idea? If you embrace new ideas, you will attract creative people to work for you because they see that you really value innovative contributions.
JF: Do you have a particular way of closing meetings?
At the end of a meeting, I will always ask, "Where are we going to go from here? What are the to-do's and who's going to do them and when will they be delivered?" I want the meeting participants to agree on a set of deliverables and to set their own timetable. Then they will have an ownership interest in the follow up, rather than just going along with my directions. And they often select a more aggressive timetable than I would have the nerve to suggest.
Update: Pozen responds to a question about conference calls in the comments below.