Why Every Meeting Should Be Optional
Want better meetings? Let everyone know they don’t have to show up.
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"You say to make every meeting optional. That's provocative, but is it practical? How would that work? Does anyone do that?"
In my research into meeting practices at high-performing organizations, I found they had a lot in common. Some practices showed up everywhere, like using a clear process to run meetings and taking good notes. Other ideas only showed up in a handful of places, but when they did, they were game changers - big ideas that lead everyone to step up their meeting game.
Andy Kaufman, the host of the People and Projects podcast, picked up on the game changer that leaders find most implausible: Make meetings optional.
It sounds like a radical policy, but when you look more closely, you'll see that it's a no-brainer. Here's why.
1. Making meetings optional eliminates excuses.
No one likes their time wasted in a pointless meeting. We also hate sitting next to someone who's checking their email, rolling their eyes, and vampire sucking all the energy out of the room.
The reality is we are all adults, and no one can force you to attend a meeting you believe to be a waste of time. Really all meetings are already optional, but it sure doesn't feel that way.
By creating an explicit company policy stating all meetings are optional, you eliminate the excuses. There's no longer any excuse to sit in a meeting doing other work. If that work is more important than the meeting, go do it! The policy makes it clear that each person is responsible for using their time well.
Meeting leaders lose their excuses for holding lousy meetings, too. How?
2. Making meetings optional forces leaders to get clear on the value.
When no one has to attend your meeting, and when anyone can leave if they realize it's not a good use of their time, meeting leaders must learn to advertise the value of each meeting in the invitation. A policy of optional meetings forces leaders to think critically about why the meeting's needed, who would get value out of participating, and what the results should be.
This clarity is required for any decent meeting, but busy leaders often skip this work when they know folks will show up anyway. Remove the assumption that other people will participate in a lousy meeting and you remove the lousy meetings.
3. Making meetings optional supports your core values.
For example, in our company, we value excellent service and well-being. Because our meetings are all optional, our team knows that they're expected to help our customers and take care of themselves first -- even if it means arriving late or missing a meeting altogether.
By making meetings optional, organizations make it clear that meeting isn't the point. This policy tells employees that if it's a choice between living your values or a meeting, you want values to win every time.
4. Making meetings optional makes meeting performance integral to job performance.
An optional meetings policy does not imply that meetings have no value. On the contrary, meetings are one of the most powerful tools we have for setting direction, creating alignment, solving problems, and driving momentum.
Instead, this policy makes every individual responsible for making meeting time worthwhile. If leaders fail to run valuable meetings, and their teams opt out, that will absolutely impact performance. If a team member decides to opt out of all meetings, thereby failing to contribute ideas, solutions, and information to the group, then their value to the organization decreases dramatically.
Both kinds of performance failure are common in companies without this policy. Leaders regularly fail to make meetings valuable and employees regularly fail to contribute, but we accept this because we assume "meetings suck." Poppycock!
When you make meetings optional, you now have a clear way to talk about and expect performance that creates value from everyone. No excuses!
5. Making meetings optional encourages excellent record keeping.
Recently I worked with a company struggling to balance their desire to be inclusive (which encouraged everyone to come to every meeting) with their need for productive meetings.
The leaders desperately wanted more focused meetings so they could get decisions made, but they didn't want to turn anyone away. Employees wanted to stay informed but felt frustrated when they found themselves in meetings that didn't impact their work and where they couldn't participate.
Making meetings explicitly optional was the first step in changing this culture. That let employees who felt obligated to attend meetings they didn't value off the hook.
The second step was making sure every meeting had a clearly stated purpose in advance, so people could see which ones were directly relevant to them.
Then, most critically, notes were published for every meeting so everyone could see the key points, decisions made, and next steps.
It took time, but it worked. Everyone in the company can now see in advance which meetings matter to them and choose to only attend those where they have an active role to play. And, knowing they'll see the notes afterward, people can skip meetings and still stay informed.
6. Making meetings optional means you'll get smaller, better meetings. And fewer of them.
Put it all together and organizations get a dramatic impact from this simple policy. As with any new policy, leaders must repeat it many times and opt out of meetings themselves before others believe. Once your team sees you model this policy in practice, however, expect to see rapid change.
As a business leader, I know that by making meetings optional, we're making it easier for our employees to make good choices about when and how they meet. A policy like this that results in smaller meetings, better meetings, and fewer of them is not provocative. It's good business.