Following Mattel’s Lead: Improving Decision-Making by Reducing Meeting Bureaucracy

CEOs and company owners who want or need to shake things up may want to take a lesson from new edicts by Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton, who is trying to turn around his company in part with improvements in the company’s “meetings culture,” such as holding gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Some management experts told CEO Briefing it’s actually a good idea for CEOs to focus on improving meetings as a key to boosting organizational performance.

In Stockton’s case, he had to try some new things. Mattel—owner of iconic toy brands including Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price—lost more than one-third of its market value this year as it dealt with an 18-percent drop in Barbie sales through the first nine months of 2014 and the third straight year of decline in the Fisher-Price baby-toy business.

“One prominent management consultant told CEO Briefing it’s actually a good idea for CEOs to focus on improving meetings as a key to boosting organizational performance.”

So, as The Wall Street Journal reported, to alleviate bureaucracy and increase intimacy, “meetings at Mattel Inc. now come with instructions.” Among them:

  • No meeting is to be held without a specific purpose.
  • No more than 10 people should participate unless the meeting is for training purposes.
  • There should be a total of no more than three meetings to make any decision.

Mattel’s problems with meetings should sound familiar to many top executives. At the company, according to the Journal, “decisions on everything from marketing to product features dragged on through multiple sessions—often with no final decision being made. Employees would spend weeks putting together elaborate ‘decks,’ or PowerPoint presentations, that could run to 100 slides or more, detailing the minutiae of every upcoming product for a brand and every facet of a marketing campaign.

“Several current and former executives said they were so inundated with meetings that they would put fake appointments on their Outlook calendars so people would think they weren’t available and could get other work done.”

Professor Angelo Kunicki, a management expert at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says that “because meetings are an integral part of getting things done, it is important to assess their effectiveness and to make modifications as needed.”

Attacking the meeting morass as Stockton did is a good idea because “we think meetings are ground zero for organizational fitness,” Aaron Dignan, CEO of organizational design firm Undercurrent, told CEO Briefing. The consulting firm works with Fortune 100 business leaders for companies  including General Electric, PepsiCo and Sonic.

“Everyone is together; decisions are made; data is shared,” Dignan said. “Companies need to do meetings better or eliminate the ones that are going poorly. That idea often gets a lot of pushback, but the fact is that most of the waste and a lot of the organizational bad behavior is stuck in meetings and the meeting process itself.”

For example, Dignan hailed Stockton’s idea of limiting the number of bodies in the room. Undercurrent even recommends holding the number to nine instead of 10. “That just reduces information complexity,” Dignan said. “There’s a point of diminishing returns on having more people in the room.”

Also, about Stockton’s ban on no more than three meetings to make a decision, Dignan said that the CEO was “digging in the right area.” Companies in need of a kick start “must speed up decision-making.”


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