The 20/50 Rule for Successful Meetings

End meetings early. Give the gift of time.

I’ve always wondered how many people out there have ever argued that meetings are the key to their personal and professional productivity. I suspect there are very few. Don’t get me wrong, I actually value face-to-face meetings more than anything else in the world when it comes to knowledge transfer and getting alignment on important issues. In fact, I find myself ignoring emails and phone calls much more in favor of meetings. But if I’m in meetings all day, when does the actual work get done?

Meetings are Unproductive

For most job roles, a meeting means sitting around a table with a group of people that are all waiting for their turn to speak. We’ve all been in that situation before (likely on both sides). Look around the room about 50 minutes into a 60 minute meeting and you’ll likely observe most people drifting off, checking email, or “pretending” to check email on their phone.

Research says you should ban laptops and sitting down, set a timer, and have silence breaks if you want meetings that accomplish anything (FastCompany).

Put a goldfish in a small fish bowl and it will remain small.  Put them in a large aquarium and that same fish will continue to grow until it fills the tank (or so I might have read once on the Internet).  The same goes for meetings.  If you schedule an hour, the meeting will last an hour.  If you schedule a 30 minute meeting, you’ll be rushed, but it will finish at the half hour mark (or beyond). For this reason, we believe it’s important to keep meetings in a fishbowl … um, we mean, purposefully short.

The 20/50 Model for Meeting Scheduling

In 2008, when we started Project Unplug, we developed a model that would take/give back 10 minutes from every hour long meeting, which ensured people would have the time to digest the current topic before rushing to the next task or meeting. Rather than schedule an hour meeting, we would schedule (or just run it)them for 50. With our days filled with meetings, this simple trick ended up giving our team a free hour each day to recharge, refocus, and reengage themselves in the subjects being discussed in meetings.

If you were to apply this same approach and methodology for half hour meetings, your organization could achieve massive gains in productivity. People will be less resentful of long meeting time and will likely work better together to ensure all topics are given their best attention, knowing they won’t have to rush from one topic to the next trying to play catch up all day.

Giving your team free time to reflect allows them to come in with fresh minds for the next meeting, or at least a decompression period before they go back to their desk to complete the rest of their work.

Let’s Review the Math:

  1. 15 Minute Stand-up Meeting = ok
  2. 20 Minute Discussion, 10 Minutes Free = 0k
  3. 50 Minute Meeting, 10 Minutes Free = ok
  4. All Day Planning/Training Sessions Without Breaks = What’s wrong with you?

10 Other Simple Rules For Productive Meetings

If you’re not in control of the meeting calendar for meetings, here are a few other rules/guidelines we find useful in running productive gatherings:

  1. No Spectators
    If someone is in a meeting, they should serve a purpose, or have a purpose for being there. If you find yourself sitting in a room with a bunch of people listening to one or two people do most of the work, start charging them an admission fee and sell them a ticket.
  2. Screens Down
    While it’s preference to have zero digital devices in meetings, sometimes they do show up. Make it a habit and a rule that screens should be faced down, laptops closed, and all “alerts” turned off. This will ensure people are focused and not distracted.  One person should be responsible for notes and they can have their screen up for that purpose.
  3. Schedule Short Meetings (20/50)
    Think to yourself: does this need to be a meeting?  One meeting?  Two?  What do we really need to accomplish?  Is this just a meeting to meet?  If so, cancel.
  4. Stand Up (people will get tired)
    It must be my body showing it’s age, but at a certain point we all stop going to live concerts and don’t enjoy standing for more than 15 minutes without moving around. Let’s use this to our advantage and have more standing/walking meetings. Few people linger around during stand up meetings.
  5. Focus Your Agenda
    Have an agenda.  Stick to it.  If new topics come up, modify the agenda. This simple task will keep people focused on the topics and less focused on CNN alerts.
  6. One Meeting Owner
    Each meeting should have a moderator that keeps to the agenda. They should sit in a central location where they can capture each person’s attention with the glance of an eye. This holds the audience accountable.
  7. Forward Thinking. Few Reviews.
    Review meetings should be reserved for historical societies and post-vacation discussions. If your meeting is more focused on “review” of material most people already know, cancel it. Flip the model and have the meetings focused only on stuff you’re working towards or future ideas.
  8. End Meeting When It’s Over
    It’s probably rude to just get up with a meeting is over, but I find myself doing it all the time.  We all know when the meeting “is over,” we sometimes linger to see if anything else will happen. If there’s anytime to ignore your FOMO impulses, it’s at the end of a meeting.
  9. Give Back Time
    When a meeting doesn’t need to take the allotted time, don’t fill it.  Don’t hold people hostage, it’s considered time-stealing.  People will never resent you for saying, “well, we accomplished what we needed, let’s end this meeting.”
  10. End Lists When You Don’t Have 10 Items
    No, seriously… we’re done.

Final Tip – The PhoneBed System

We developed the “PhoneBed” system to keep our phones silent and protected during meetings. Nearly everyone at Bolin has one of these on their desk, in addition to a few that sit in our large conference room. For me, it forces me to put my phone in a public place so it’s obvious if I reach for it.  It also silences any sort of vibration from alerts and email notices. If you’re interested in doing a full-office experiment using the PhoneBed System, drop me an email (mike@unplug.pro) and I will set you up with a kit.


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