You Can’t Multitask in the Meeting—So Don’t

I’ve never relished meetings—for a number of different reasons. All too often, participants show up woefully unprepared. The meeting starts too late, and the agenda wains. Inevitably, the entire group gets sidetracked. Time is used and it can’t be recouped. (As I’ve said before, time is our most precious resource, because it’s the one thing you can never buy more of.)

Alas, and despite my distaste for them, I’ve been in more meetings than I could ever count. The startups I’ve been involved with have all had regular meetings. Apple had fly-in meetings quite often. Adobe met about everything; there were even meetings to plan the next meeting. And based on my experience in academia, I think universities function only through meetings.

Yet it is possible for meetings to be effective. No one was better at keeping things focused and productive than Steve Jobs, who had a few key rules to govern our Apple meetings. When it came to data and analysis meetings, here is what I have synthesized and proven effective from Steve, Adobe, and startups:

• An agenda is always posted the day before the meeting. Not an hour before the meeting. A full day before.
• The meeting starts promptly. And by promptly, I mean promptly. There’s no excuse for a meeting that’s off-track and running behind before it even gets started.
• The agenda is adhered to throughout the meeting. The topics discussed—the only topics discussed—are the ones stated on the agenda.
• All data is distributed prior to the meeting. Participants aren’t expected to become overnight experts on this data, but they are expected to be familiar with it.
• The meeting is reserved for mindful, in-the-moment discussion. I’ll say more about that in just a moment.
• Questions are answered, conclusions are reached, and the meeting is adjourned.

For a point of reference, the meetings I attended with Apple leadership – marketing, product, sales, operations– tended to last between 30 and 40 minutes. If we didn’t reach a conclusion or some sense of resolution by the time 40 minutes had elapsed, well, that was trouble.

Remember, I said that was the model for data and analysis meetings. For creative meetings, the model is a little bit different.

• There’s a whiteboard present to offer visual aid to the brainstorming. A whiteboard, not anything fancier than that. Note: You need erasable markers, but don’t use Sharpies!
• Effective creative meetings are limited to three topics.
• A trained facilitator is present—someone who is experienced in keeping meetings on track and ideas flowing. I have a contact list with the names of about five facilitators who I can happily recommend.
• In addition to the facilitator, we also had a scribe with mind-mapping software. There are a number of good options here, including Curio, MindMeister, and Cmap, which is a free program from IHMC. The facilitator’s role is to keep the meeting focused, while the scribe makes sure ideas are recorded.
• This one will generate some controversy, but I really believe creative meetings should be device-free for participants. Leave your phone in your office or in the car. Note: Paper and pen do not count as devices in this context. Bring ‘em if you like.
• If outcomes need further or deeper analysis, use the data/analysis format I noted above.

Now, I said I’d come back to this idea of mindful, in-the-moment participation. First of all, you can’t multitask. That’s not my opinion—it’s a scientific consensus. All you can do is focus switch—and your focus always needs to be in the moment, on the task at hand.

That’s why I recommend sending out the data in advance—so everyone can arrive already focused on it. And it’s why I feel strongly about making meetings device-free. If you stop even for a moment to check your email or your iMessages, well, that’s a moment of the meeting you’ve lost. Meanwhile, others in the meeting might actually be devoting their full attention to it—so there’s inequity present.

As if to illustrate my point, the musician Kendrick Lamar announced just days ago that phones and photography are being prohibited at his concerts. Sure, part of this has to do with marketing, but I honestly think there’s something deeper going on. He wants his audience to be “in the moment” with him—and numerous other artists feel the same way. He wants you to view the performance from your vantage point in the room—not from your device screen.

Device views, after all, are for the unlucky ones who don’t get in. Wear it as a badge of honor that you’re there in the room when it happens, enjoying the 360-degree vibe. Everything about the experience—from the new person you make eye contact with, to the idiot who steps on your foot—is part of that special, in-the-moment vantage point.

But back to business: When you’re in the meeting—a “management concert,” if you will—be there. I won’t promise that you’ll start relishing meetings, but you will get more out of them.