Steve Jobs’ 3-Point Formula for Leading Effective Meetings Was Brilliant. We Need to Get Back To It.

Middle management has suffered for years under a heavy burden. And no, it’s not too much work. It’s not too many meetings. It’s too many meetings AND too much work. There’s just not enough time in the day to fit it all in.

Work is what makes business hum — priority #1, you might say. Meetings should support work; when they don’t, they become a time suck that wrecks productivity. But as Harvard Business Review reported (among many other publications), management is increasingly buried in meetings. The reasons are all over the place, but generally center on leadership wanting more control or believing (erroneously) that gabbing in groups clarifies and expedites.

Steve Jobs had a grasp on this. He knew what meetings to keep and which to cut. And he knew how to run them efficiently. It’s time we get back to it.

Here’s the “Meeting Rule of 3s,” inspired by Jobs’ own approach to leadership meetings (with some tweaks inspired by other tech leaders):

Keep the invite list small — 3-5 people are ideal.

His reasoning? The more people you have in a meeting, the less productive it is. Too many voices becomes a sea of noise and it’s less likely you’ll get anything accomplished. In fact, Jobs famously declined an invite from President Obama to a tech meeting because, well, the guest list was too long.

Also, as you craft your invite list, know exactly what each person’s stake/role in the meeting will be. If they cannot or will not contribute, cut them. Anyone there for informational purposes can be sent a transcript or recording after the fact.

Keep the agenda short — no more than 3 items.

The goal here is focus. With more than 3 items on an agenda, you’re likely to get lost in a rabbit hole of unrelated topics and side conversations; it’s hard to know what conclusions to draw and what action items you have at the end when agenda items run amuck. Keep it short — and make sure all 3 agenda items are clearly connected to the core meeting purpose.

Keep the length to no more than 30 minutes.

You may think the substance of a given meeting demands a bigger time slot, but science tells us that largely ends up as a waste of time. Our attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s and our mental stamina is unable to sustain meaningful, analytical discussion for very long. If you keep meetings short (no more than 30 minutes) and parcel key pieces of information in digestible chunks (1-2 minute segments), you’re more likely to leave the meeting with broad comprehension.

Sheryl Sandberg took this a step further, actually — she kept a lot of her meetings to 10 minutes.

There’s also the question of need. Do you really need to have a meeting? Ask yourself the following 3 questions; if the answer is no to all of them, don’t schedule one.

  • Does this meeting require feedback from others, or is it just informational?
  • If I do need input/feedback, is a meeting a more time-effective way to get it than a message or email?
  • Would a meeting provide anything that an email or message wouldn’t (such as in-the-moment feedback on problems that are constantly evolving)?

And, finally, as a general note to CEOs just establishing business cadence: Consider building a minimalist meeting culture. Following the “Rule of 3s,” keep this general guideline in mind: Management should aim to schedule no more than 1 minute of meeting time for every 3 minutes of work. In essence, no more than a quarter of a day should be spent in meetings.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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