Smart meetings, how to use meetings to make decisions? 

A single meeting in a company can cost $20,000. Here are some guidelines to keep only the useful ones and make them really work.     

A simple meeting of 20 people for a whole day can cost the company between 20 and 30 thousand dollars. Does it seem like a lot? Take your monthly salary and divide it by 20 days per month. Add 50% (47% actually) of social security taxes and indirect personnel costs, add catering to that and multiply it by 20 people. If you had to travel, add tickets and hotel. Also meeting-room rental, cost of teleconference, calls, land transport, coordination, etc. And this does not include the time to prepare the presentations or the opportunity cost. 

Meetings are expensive. So how do you get the most out of them? 

Meetings can be used for many things, but some uses will generate greater value for the business; and without a doubt, they must generate more value than the cost required to carry them out. Three different reasons stand out for generating a meeting: 

C: Meetings or moments of Communication: these are generally top-down presentations on already resolved issues that need to be cascaded to the team or the rest of the organization. 

I: Meetings or moments of Information: meetings or moments within a meeting, to obtain information, or inquire about a specific result, progress, or topic. They usually take the format of staff meetings, where progress information on different aspects of the business is looked into and shared. 

D: Decision Meetings: the aim is not only to discuss a business issue, but also to reach an agreement defining a course of action and ensuring commitment, in order for said action to be executed as agreed. 

The three contacts mentioned are important, but it would seem that the first two (communication and information) could be achieved without always requiring the costs of a meeting (email, call, memo, request for information, status report, etc.). Although a face-to-face meeting is always preferable, given the scarcity of time, the first two could be replaced by other channels, with very low loss of value. 

However, moments of decision, due to the interaction they require, are difficult to replace with any other channel. Using the few meetings for decision making is the best way to repay the time invested. 

Key factors for only keeping decision meetings in the company 

Now, how to ensure that, in our company, meetings are used effectively for this purpose? I suggest five factors to consider, and in this order: 

1) The right meeting.  Make sure each meeting has a clear objective. It must be defined whether it is a meeting for decision, communication, or information. If it is a mixed meeting, the agenda must stipulate, in advance, which topics are of each type to minimize communication and information times and allow participants to prepare for the decision points. 

2) The right decisions. 

The meeting agenda should clearly specify in advance, what decisions will be made, which have already been made, and which will not need to be made at this time.

This point seems obvious, but we humans love to debate and show our point of view on decisions already made, and when we do not do so, perhaps because of their simplicity, we prefer to get down to work on matters of greater detail, that do not yet require immediate attention. This clarification seems obvious, but it is key to organizing the discussion and focusing the team on the priority decisions that add the most value. 

3) The right moment. The meeting must be held at the time on the calendar where it is important that the decisions that comprise it are made. By being clear about what decisions will be made at each meeting and knowing when it is convenient to address each key business decision, it will be much easier to review the dates and the annual calendar of meetings that make up management routine. 

4) The right people. Once the type of meeting, its scope, and the moment to have it have been defined, it will be important to define who to invite, and who not to. If you use any method of assigning decision roles such as RAPID, RACI or something similar, make sure that only people who have the capacity to allocate resources, the decision makers and the person who can present the alternatives for decision makers to choose from (only the R and D in RAPID, for example) participate in the meeting. You will be tempted to invite more people to the meeting so they are “in the know”, but there will almost always be many more efficient ways to inform them, than by inviting them to the meeting. The “For Your Information” or “inviting someone just in case”, has a very high cost. Many times, participants who are not so involved at the moment are also invited to “get some training”, to learn and see the decision makers in action; but what is the cost of that? For sure, there is a price to pay. Is there no other better alternative to train these people than adding them to the most important moment in the management of a company? 

5) The right anticipation. Finally, make sure that participants can make a decision and commit to it within the meeting. For this, there are at least two key aspects to consider: first, remember that “Decisions are the enemy of surprises”. If you want to surprise, probably that day nothing will be decided. If you want decisions to be made, share key information before, so the decision maker can validate it, question it, share it, or just think about alternatives. Second, make sure that decision makers are presented with alternatives, and not just one single solution. The single solution promotes the sale of ideas. Alternatives, on the other hand, broaden the analysis, they favor objectivity and transfer the decision-making power to whoever really has to decide. 

If you take these five points into account to define which meetings are held in your company and which ones are not, you will surely achieve better use of your people’s time, greater effectiveness in decisions and greater commitment to agreements. 

To ensure this happens, here are some control questions you can ask yourself when walking into a meeting. All answers should be “Yes” if it is a decision meeting: 

Control questions 

1) Are you clear about why you came? Do you know if it is a D (Decision), C (Communication) or an I (Information) meeting? 

2) Do you know what decisions should be made, those already made and those that are not going to be made today? 

3) Do you know in what role you are going to participate, and how you are going to add value to this meeting? Do you have something better to do?

4) Are the people who should be at the meeting there? Is someone missing? Anyone not needed? 

5) Did you share or receive information to help prepare? If someone is going to be surprised today, it is likely that decisions will not be made. 

6) Is the time set aside for not only debating, but also for making decisions and ensuring executable agreements, viable? 

If any of the answers is “No”, get up and leave. Surely you have something better to do. If the meeting passed the initial check, you will probably have an effective, decision-oriented meeting with greater chances of securing commitments for execution and more potential impact on business results.

Gastón Francese
Partner at Tandem.

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