Managing "Unproductive" Meetings

I went on a bike ride this morning with my friend Jimmy and we got to talking about business (not the venture business because Jimmy’s not in tech/venture/web/startups). I asked him if he takes a lot of meetings that he’d rather not take. And whether it would be better to stop taking them.

We ended up concluding that taking meetings that are likely to be unproductive for you is a worthwhile thing to do, but you have to know how to manage these meetings.

Here’s some guidelines we came up with:

1) Limit the length of the meeting upfront. Seth Godin once told me (or maybe he wrote this in his blog) that he always limits his meetings to 30 minutes. If he chooses to make them longer, he can do that. But going in, they are set for 30 minutes and the person he’s meeting with knows it. Jimmy told me that for many "informational interviews" that he offers young people looking to get into his line of work, he limits the time to 15 minutes. I don’t do this religiously but I am going to do more of this going forward.

2) Have a hard stop and let your assistant (if you have one) know what it is. Ask him or her to interrupt the meeting when the hard stop has come. This is helpful if you are having a hard time ending the meeting gracefully.

3) Set an agenda up at the start of the meeting and be very focused on getting through what the person who asked for the meeting wants to cover in the time you have allotted. This means less small talk at the start of the meeting. That said, I think it’s always good to have a little small talk at the start of a meeting to set the tone.

4) Don’t say yes to every request that is made during the meeting (an introduction, reviewing some material, another meeting, etc, etc). Ask the person to pick one thing that is the most impactful thing you can do for them and agree to do that (if you can deliver on it).

5) Try to do it right in the meeting if you can. A quick email or phone call right during the meeting can be a great way to get the thing done you agreed to do. Jimmy told me he does this a lot and I agree that it’s a great trick if you can pull it off.

6) Ask the person who you met with to follow up with an email with the specific request they are making of you. I do this all the time. I find that it is much easier than writing it down during the meeting.

I tend to take a lot of meetings that others might feel are unproductive. And they often are unproductive for me. But there is a lot of serendipity in this world and you never know when an unproductive meeting turns into a productive one. Plus what goes around comes around. Particularly with younger people who are in need of career advice. That’s a particularly hard category because I could fill every day with those kinds of meetings and I can’t do that. But I think you have to do some giving back. And when you do, you need to figure out how to be productive with the time you are giving away.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. (notnixon)

    Great post Fred. Every point is useful.

  2. tim

    I find that meeting guidelines are useful for someone who is not engaged in the issue, have no idea how to run meetings, or are running a meeting for running a meetings sake..I’m being serious. The most production meetings I experience have a clearly defined goal but no other guidelines. Period. The person (or people) running the meeting generally is engaged in the issue.Outside of those meetings I can give or take the meetings. I make the decision on joining a meeting based on selfish criteria. What does this get me or my project? Or is something going to be discussed in this meeting I need to be aware of? And perhaps that is when “meeting guidelines” are useful. If the majority of your meetings are lousy – than perhaps its best to make them short and to the point.

  3. andyswan

    #7 Keep the number of people in the meeting to as low of a number as possible#8 No attorneys#9 Have your guests sit in the most uncomfortable chairs imaginable (OK, I stole this one from the reality of meeting with you lol)#10 Whiteboard not powerpoint (this one directed at my fellow startup guys trying to “pitch”)

    1. fredwilson

      andy, you revealed my secret chair technique!

    2. RacerRick

      Andy, I thought you always have your attorneys present?

      1. andyswan

        Only when I meet with Lindzon

  4. RacerRick

    Here are some suggestions when you’re talking a meeting with a big wig like Fred…Email the person a short overview before the meeting. Short background and meeting intentions should be included (this email is rarely read btw).Start of the meeting, explain your intentions. My mom (a terrific saleswoman) says: the person should know what they are supposed to buy [from you] before they order [lunch].Elevator pitch: explain what you’re showing/selling should be explained in 1 paragraph.PPT Slides in person shouldn’t have a lot of text. And just a 5-10 at most. You’re supposed to talk, not read, a meeting.The opposite with a software/site demo. You shouldn’t have to explain everything.Always keep it short. Plan your meeting in advance to take 15-20 minutes so that with discussion it could go 30 max.Leave with a set follow up.

  5. Micah Baldwin

    I think its great that folks like you and Brad Feld are willing to take (almost) any meeting. When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me to take every interview, because in the worst case it was practice. To some degree the same goes for meetings. One never knows that regardless of how bad a meeting goes if there might be some redeeming value.. Looking for that redeeming value has to be worth 15-30min of time.

    1. andyswan

      Appeaser. 🙂

      1. Micah Baldwin

        LOL. Im a biz dev dude…I am pretty sure appeaser is a primary job function… 😉 (It might come right before “constant smiler” or after “complete BS’er” not sure)

    2. cpa2be

      I agree with never turning down an interview opportunity. You never know what you’re going to learn or if you’ll end up liking the position. It helps overcome fears that many people have about interviewing.

  6. graham mudd

    great post. given how pervasive meetings seem to have become in corporate culture, managing them correctly can have a huge impact on productivity. amazon has (or at least used to have) a “two-pizza policy” or something like that. basically people aren’t allowed to let meetings get any bigger than two pizzas could feed. once a meeting gets beyond 8 people, the returns diminish really quickly. 4-5 seems to be the sweet spot.

  7. John

    Regarding #3, for any meeting, I recommend distributing the agenda, meeting goals and any participant responsibilities (e.g., what materials to review, etc.) prior to the meeting so participants come to the meeting prepared to discuss and, if required, make decisions. Also, particularly for meetings that will be repeat, ask participants to rate the meeting (communications, agenda, goals achieved, etc.) and solicit suggestions on how to improve.

  8. howardlindzon

    i can sweat profusely on demand and that freaks people out. built in meeting ender. oh and screw you andy 🙂

  9. howardlindzon

    in the spirit of my last comment if you want to meet with me in toronto and see the sweat on demand in person…email me to set up a meeting

  10. mrclark411

    Fred, “Try to do it right in the meeting if you can.” Have you ever made a phone call or sent an email in one of those meetings that you regretted later? In the moment you thought that this kid has a great idea, but perhaps you shouldn’t have forwarded it to X?Just curious.

    1. fredwilson

      I can’t think of any good examples. If it was regret, it wasn’t deep regret

      1. mrclark411

        This is kinda funny. I post a comment to your blog. You often respond personally (and quickly) and yet I don’t know that I would feel comfortable writing you an email.Strange world this internet.

        1. fredwilson

          When you comment on my blog, you are writing me an emailThat’s the power of disqus

          1. mrclark411

            Good point.But would you respond to me had I emailed you? (probably apples/oranges, since in a way you wrote me first)

          2. fredwilson

            I try to respond to most emailsThe shorter the email and the easier the reponse, the more likely I will respond

  11. leigh

    Agencies are notorious for meetings. Meetings to set up meetings. Meetings to talk about the meeting you just had. Meetings to talk about the meeting you are going to have. Monthly meetings. Weekly meetings. Department meetings. Management meetings. Sr. Executive meetings. Even more Sr. Executive meetings.I’m sure you’ve seen this link from 37signals – an oldie but a goodie. http://gettingreal.37signal

  12. Steven Kane

    another good technique for keeping meetings decently brief: add large quantities of laxatives to the coffee and soft drinks served to your guests.

  13. Poppe

    Fred, I think it’s great to expose one self to serendipity. The Basecamp guys (37signals in ‘Getting Real’) also set a 30 min limit to all meetings. I’m seriously considering buying a 30 min hour glass and put it on the table every time I go into a meeting. That will send the right message. As for limiting time spent on career advice I just send people a copy of “Johnny Bunko – The last career guide you’ll ever need”.

  14. Anton

    Limit the number of participaints. Productivity is inversely related to participiant number.

  15. mikenolan99

    I love the “what goes around…” concept. I helped out a startup with some early capital placement, and nothing ever came of it. Just today, he ended ended up helping me on a charity project.My favorite team meeting concept is to never have an agenda. Have a goal. Let the team decide the way to get there… starting a meeting with a blank sheet of paper is a powerful thing…

  16. Dan Weinreb

    I think 30 minutes as a limit is not a universal rule. It depends a lot on what the meeting is for. At Common Angels, we always allow a company more time than that to explain what they’re doing, even at our first meeting with them. It takes a while for the salient points to come out, and you want to get a feel for the people. Also, the executive director of Common Angels and I recently met a partner from a local VC firm, and we spent two hour in a fascinating discussion comparing how we do business and getting to know each other. In my day job at ITA Software, meetings that I go to are usually to have detailed discussion of a technical area, or go over schedules for our project, and those meetings are usually one hour. I agree that there should be a hard time limit. (Many of us have such limits because we have other schedule activites, anyway.) So 30 minutes is appropriate for some kinds of meetings but not necessarily for others. I agree with the rest of your points.

  17. Venkat

    Wow, that’s a bit of an echo chamber you guys have going there. My entire comment below can be classified as a riff on ‘a cat may look at a king.’I can cheerfully say that I have (out of choice) been in very few meetings that could be classified as “audience being granted with indulgent and gracious benefactor” from the seeker side, and none at all from the other other end, having no grace or benefaction to bestow :-). If I did, I predict I would hate being oversubscribed in terms of in-bound seeker attention of this 1:1 sort. In fact my discomfort with such formally-asymmetric meeting situations (“this is for you, I am just being nice”) is probably a top reason why I never returned to the startup world after a brief foray, and why I am not in sales, and why I avoid mentorship relationships from both ends. I can tolerate enterprise research biz dev, which I do a little bit of, mainly because it is a more P2P situation that allows me to be more myself, less ‘on show.’ Even within the enterprise, while I do talk to senior management people a fair amount, I avoid ‘stand on ceremony’ situations where I am pure seeker, and largely limit myself to interactions where the senior manager in question also needs something from me. The enterprise is in this respect a healthier place than the VC world, because even a CEO-janitor interaction can, with creativity, be framed as “this is for the good of the corporation, and we are both on the same team” thereby mitigating the me-asking-powerful-you aspect. Basically, I avoid situations where I am pure seeker, with nothing to offer in return, like the plague. I eventually stop cultivating a relationship if the other person acts like they are getting no value out of me (whether their perception is true or false, I need to get out, since I don’t like being given handouts OR being under appreciated).In other words, there are reasons to dislike what you call ‘unproductive meetings’ even from the side from which you might think it is 1-way productive 🙂 An asymmetric meeting situation is stacked against authentic dialogue. Sure, in the real world, you gotta be able to navigate all sorts of situations with all sorts of people in both symmetric and asymmetric conditions, but so far I’ve survived in my little anti-hierarchical, non-seeker, win-win-only neck of the woods.Anyhoo, you guys might enjoy my somewhat tongue-in-cheek misanthropic piece The 15 laws of meeting power which is really more relevant to longer group meetings, but some of it applies mutatis mutandis, to 1:1 meetings.Venkat

  18. cpa2be

    I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. More often than not, I think unproductive meetings have the ability to turn around and become productive. If nothing else, you can often walk away with a great “gem” or two.Being younger than most people I meet with has generated some “no I can’t meet with you” responses, but once people take the time to meet up both parties often have a great experience. I am able to learn so much from other generations and feel than I can return the favor about gen y.

  19. MikePLewis

    in a company when meeting internally, i find it’s good to have “standup meetings” where it’s not in a conference room but rather around somebody’s desk/computer. This limits the wasteful chitchat, limits the size to only the people who need to be involved and people seem to focus better.

    1. fredwilson

      I know that a bunch of our companies do these and like them

  20. andy

    this is my favorite:5) Try to do it right in the meeting if you can. A quick email or phone call right during the meeting can be a great way to get the thing done you agreed to do. Jimmy told me he does this a lot and I agree that it’s a great trick if you can pull it off.I have personally found that doing this is by far the most effective, time saving way to do two things: a) get something off your plate immediately b) potentially end the meeting on “delivered goods”For me, getting one major thing accomplisged in a meeting, or one deliverable is HUGE.Andy

  21. Antman

    Making yourself available, right on!!!!!! More people need to do this. Nobody, I mean NOBODY who has made it, did it on their own. Everyone has had help. It amazes me how people seem to forget this!Good work Fred, for remembering this and makin’ ya self available. How you do it; that’s about you. Doin’ it; that is about others. That’s truly giving!

  22. wjcohen

    My wife taught me about a whiteboard/piece of paper her organization puts up at every meeting called a bike rack (or “parking lot,” for the nono-ecofriendly.) Anytime an issue comes up that threatens the main focus of the conversation, anyone at the meeting can yell “bike rack” and they put it on the sheet and get back to business. Then they come back to the bike rack issues at the end or at another more appropriate meeting.

    1. David Gillespie

      I love this bike rack idea! I am going to start using this today.And great post Fred.

  23. mattjazz

    Most of my meetings have been operational ones, with multiple participants. I’ve made the experience that multitasking as described under 5) is one of the biggest meeting productivity killers.I prefer to structure the agenda in a way that not everyone needs to be present all of the time. So meeting participants generally pop in and out of the meeting in 15-30 min intervals. They should go back to their work and do it in a focused manner.Surprisingly enough, in spite of the fact that many people complain about lot of unproductive time spent in the meetings, it took quite some tome before this practice has been accepted by the invitees and they left automatically after agenda topics of concern to them.