Five alternatives to meetings
by Ranjith Kumaran, CEO of Hightail

When I co-founded my startup PunchTab, one of the first things I did was institute a meetings rule. If you added an internal meeting to anyone’s calendar, it cost $1 per minute scheduled. That’s right – at PunchTab you had to pay to hold a meeting, with the fees going to a company fun fund.

It’s a somewhat extreme measure, but I know that many people will understand the problem I was hoping to solve. Meetings are too often unproductive, tedious and a waste of time. Aside from that, I was building a team of self-starters so I didn’t want a culture of justification and delegation to permeate the company. If you had an idea, you went and did it, gathering feedback and other input through informal channels, not official meetings.

Eventually, I ended up being the first one to call a meeting, which I ensured didn’t run long so I wasn’t out of pocket too much (it set me back $20). In our first year at PunchTab, we had a total of three internal meetings – not counting customer engagements and any casual hangouts outside of meeting rooms when people would get together to quickly discuss moving projects forward.

Of course, this was easy for us because we were a small startup of a dozen people working together in one space where ideas and conversations flowed naturally. But exploring alternatives to scheduling meetings can also help larger companies be more effective and productive.

The following five alternatives to meetings could help you cut the amount of time wasted by irrelevant and unfocused meetings and create more effective ways of communicating for everyone at your business.

1. 1:1 > 10:1

If you gather 10 people in a room to present a new project or get feedback on a piece of work, you may be making good use of your time but you’re not making the most of theirs. The likelihood that everything you have to say is 100% relevant to each person and actually sinks in, is small. Not only are you wasting their time, you’re probably not getting their full attention either.

Instead make time to share your ideas early in one-on-one situations, whether that’s an informal face-to-face conversation, a phone call or instant messaging chat. It may take you longer than your one-hour meeting to speak with everyone, but you’ll have communicated your needs more effectively and given everyone else more time to get on with whatever it is you want from them. Doing it early also helps you get buy-in, as people are there when the baby is born.

2. Make personal connections

People are more likely to do good work if they actually know you rather than you just being that person at the end of a meeting table. Getting to know everyone at a small-to-medium sized business takes effort but it’s worth doing. Even at bigger companies, you can cultivate relationships with departments most relevant to you or identify internal influencers whose networks can help extend your own.

The best way to foster personal connections is to create informal environments for people from different groups to meet. At Hightail, we have free lunch on Mondays where everyone sits down to break bread and get to know each other. Recently, we installed a cookie oven and there’s nothing like the smell of freshly baked cookies to bring random people together for a quick chat and a nibble.

3. Your leaders should be conduits, not barriers

The leaders at your company, from the executive team to department heads, are in positions of great influence. But too often this means that decisions trickle down while information flows back up, usually via meetings where edicts are outlined and reports dutifully given (just in time to start preparing the next set). I believe this model is upside-down – leaders shouldn’t waste people’s time with meetings just so they can find out what’s going on.

As CEO of Hightail, my role is to use my personal connections to know what everyone is working on and then use my influence to connect individuals and small groups who may be able to help one another. As long as our business has clear goals and we hire people who like to take the initiative, I can trust them to explore and develop projects without constantly scheduling meetings in order to present ideas for approval.

4. Use software to work together better

Some of the earliest successful collaboration apps were those that made having meetings easier, especially for offsite workers, global offices and distant clients. Apps like, WebEx, and GoToMeeting certainly improved on the basic conference call, but their ease of use is also responsible for the proliferation of more useless meetings.

Far better to utilize services like Basecamp, Asana and Trello that allow teams to share information, manage projects and stay up to date using shared online tools. Hightail has recently launched a new creative collaboration feature called Spaces that makes giving feedback and managing the creative process easier. Collaboration can be done more effectively – you just need to take discussion off the (meeting) table and have it online.

5. Make everyone an internal publisher

Meetings can be a useful way to share information about what different groups are working on. But these are usually the meetings that busy people feel ok about skipping altogether or show up with their face buried in a laptop or mobile phone. You need to find new ways of sharing updates that people can digest in their own time.

An internal blog or wiki can be a great place to post information about projects, departments and other happenings. A short weekly email can highlight what’s going on in a subject area, while Instant Messaging groups are a quick, easy and informal way to bring people together to discuss relevant topics.

We could all do with fewer meetings in our lives so these five tips should help cut down your calendar and make everyone at your business more productive. And the best thing about having fewer meetings? When you do finally schedule one, people actually pay attention.

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Those are my five alternatives to boardroom boredom.

If you want to find out more about how collaboration software can reduce your need for meetings, check out the links below.

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