The Collaborator’s Secret to Drawing the Line on Endless Meetings

We’ve posted quite a number of articles on how to make your meetings more productive, such as this one on fundamental skills, and this one on how not to waste time in meetings. Peruse this blog and you’re sure to find dozens of articles on how to have meetings with greater ease, clarity and purpose.

We’ve even put together a series of ebooks to give you expert tips, strategies and best practices for leading better staff, brainstorming, client update and project management type meetings.

This article is a bit different. It has to do with how to decide in the first place on whether or not to even hold a meeting. Or, if you’re not the one calling the meeting, how to decide whether to attend a meeting you’ve been invited to.

And, as you can imagine, the latter decision is a bit tricky, especially if it’s your boss calling the meeting! But, there is a solution that will earn you respect, and, at the same time help you get important work done – the kind that can lead to making your highest level of contribution. And, who knows, having the courage to draw the line on endless meetings just might help change the meeting-going culture within your organization for the betterment of all concerned.

To that end, let’s consider what a book on essentialism can teach us about when to say yes, and no, to meetings.

In Greg McKeown’s bestseller, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less*, there’s a chapteressentialism greg mckeown on how the essentialist goes about making decisions. Chapter 9, “Select” is about the power of extreme criteria. It’s a technique we can use to become more selective about the meeting choices we make. Knowing how to pick and choose the meetings we host or attend will, in the long run, make us more productive, valuable and deeply satisfied.

The power of extreme criteria is rooted in the practice of making trade-offs (chapter 4 in McKeown’s book). “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life.

“A Nonessentialist,” writes McKeown, approaches every trade-off by asking, ‘How can I do both?’ Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, ‘Which problem do I want?’ An Essentialist makes trade-offs deliberately…Instead of asking, ‘What do I have to give up?’ they ask, ‘what do I want to go big on?

The idea is to put the decision to do something to an extreme test. This technique can be applied to just about anything when exploring options to choose the vital few from the trivial many – a core Essentialist principle. Basically, the power of extreme criteria says if you’re not totally convinced attending a meeting is the best use of your time, then it’s a no-go.

McKeown relates how TED speaker Derek Sivers decided to stay home and skip a bunch of conferences he had signed up for, and instead used the 12 days he would have been gone to more productive ends. Sivers decided to make some deliberate trade-offs in how he’d spend his time to go big on the things that mattered most. He took the Essentialist approach to conference attendance.

According to McKeown…

Nonessentialist: Says yes to almost every request or opportunity. Uses broad implicit criteria like “if someone I know is doing it, I should do it.”

Essentialist: Says yes to only the top 10 percent of opportunities. Uses narrow, explicit criteria like “Is this exactly what I am looking for?”

So then, what exactly is the Extreme Criteria technique, and how can we use it in deciding when/when not to hold or attend a meeting?

The 90 Percent Rule

gregmckeown twitterMcKeown shares how he and a colleague used the 90 Percent Rule to select 24 candidates for a class out of a pool of nearly 100. While identifying minimum and absolute criteria, they scored the candidates on a scale of 1-10. 9s and 10s were in, while anyone scoring under a 7 was ruled out. The problem was evaluating the in-between candidates, the 7s and 8s. They struggled to determine which of these would be good enough and chosen for the class. Then the liberating thought hit: “If something (or in this case someone) is just or almost good enough – that is, a 7 or an 8 – then the answer should be a no.”

We can apply this extreme criterion to choosing which meetings to attend (the vital few to go big on) or which ones to skip (the trivial many):

  • What are the most important criteria for making the decision?
  • Give these options a score between 0 and 100 (or 1-10).
  • If you rate them any lower than a 90 percent (9 or 10), automatically change the rating to zero, and do not schedule or agree to attend the meeting.

Sample selection criteria for meetings might be things like:

  • The meeting aligns with my area of expertise (right thing/way)
  • I have a direct contribution to make (right thing/way)
  • The quality of my work will go up as a result of this meeting (right thing)
  • My participation in this meeting will help us go big on something that really matters (right thing)
  • Attending this meeting is essential; it is the best use of my time at this moment (right time)
  • The meeting or conference technology will be conducive to achieving a high quality of conversational speech (right way)
  • I am not attending this meeting because of peer pressure or ego (right thing)
  • It’s highly likely the meeting’s structure and agenda, along with a properly planned ending are optimized for achieving the best results possible (right way)

Your selection criteria might include a few key options, or it may have a single, most important criterion to consider. In either case, selection should consider whether participation involves the right way, the right thing, and the right time**.

These were just ideas, but point to an important leadership opportunity. You can be part of a movement to change the culture of needless and unproductive meetings in your organization into something driven by the Essentialists mindset. Coming up with your own 90 percent rule for meetings will give a systematic and disciplined way to make better decisions.

What would happen if we got rid of the meetings that fall below the 70 to 80 percents selection criteria? What if we stopped showing up for meetings that drain our energy, time and resources, and instead select the few that are most valuable to making the biggest impact?

Would people think less of us? Or would they see that less is actually more, better?

If nothing else, they might see in us the basic value proposition of Essentialism: “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution* towards the things that really matter.”

That’s a trade-off worth making for a meeting worth attending.


*Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Copyright ©2014 by Greg McKeown is a New York Times Bestseller, and available on Amazon and other places where books are sold.

**Highest level of contribution includes “the right thing, the right way at the right time,” according to McKeown. “By applying tougher criteria we can tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. If we search for a good opportunity,’ then we will find scores of pages for us to think about and work through. Instead, we can conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: ‘What do I feel inspired by?’ and ‘What am I particularly talented at?’ and ‘What meets a significant need in the world?’”


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