Why You Should Ban Laptops & iPads at Board Meetings

Posted on Oct 31, 2011 | 24 comments


This article originally appeared on TechCrunch.

I haven’t had too many board meetings lately so I want to get this timely post out now lest somebody think I’m talking about their company or board in particular. This is a post about ALL boards.

Back when I ran board meetings as a CEO, the biggest annoyance was Blackberrys. You would always be able to tell what was going on by seeing the unhealthy infatuation board members had with staring at their crotches. Somehow they imagined you didn’t notice that they were glancing beneath the table secretly firing off one-line emails.

Every entrepreneur I know bitched about it and the smartest boards banned Blackberrys.

Fast forward to today. We now have ultra-lightweight laptops (MacBook Airs) or iPads and totally available Wi-Fi connections. So every board meeting I’m at has laptops opened or iPads fired up. They are just there to “be productive” and review your material. Um, yeah. This is a mistake.

Why a Mistake?
The board meeting is the one time you have as a management team to engage your investors. If you’ve raised money from meaningful people then you really want to maximize every minute of this time. That’s why I advise startups to get the board packs out early (so board members actually read them) and to focus as little of the board meeting as possible on “updates” and as much as possible on “strategic discussions.”

If you want to know how I believe you could run better board meetings you can read my 3 posts on “Running More Effective Board Meetings,” “The Agile Board” and “How to Communicate with Investors Between Meetings.”

But you know in your core that there is no positive gain from investors or management having laptops open. They don’t need to “go through your deck,” “access the financials,” “look at your competitors products” or any of the other BS reasons to have a laptop open. They should be engaged 100% in the meeting. And even they would prefer this. But given the temptations when your laptop is open that are elicited by those little popups of incoming email it’s impossible to not “just quickly read this message and fire off a response.”

We are all guilty. We are all human.

The reality is that over the years I’ve sat in 100′s of board meetings and I see what people do on their laptops. They flip between your presentation and email or the Internet. If any of us have our laptop sopen in any meeting we can’t help it. Which is why I don’t open it. It’s why when I go to a romantic dinner with my wife I leave my Blackberry in the car (at least I intend to ;-)) – because given the temptation we just can’t resist. We’re human. Even your management team members with laptops get sucked into other work.

The only solution to maximize your meeting – no laptops. Period.

What to Do About It?
If you have a 3-hour board meeting I recommend that you take a 20-minute email break 90 minutes in. Tell people in advance. Tell them that you have a “no laptop” policy so that you can maximize your time with them. Send them this post and blame it on me – I don’t care.

But if they know in advance that they’ll have a chance to get to email to “sign off on that important deal they’re supposed to close” there is no excuse for not giving you undivided attention for the time you have together.

Just Say “NO”
Ultimately it’s up to us as VCs to enforce the behavior amongst our peer group. There needs to be collective pressure to really be engaged in our board meetings or why have them at all. If we all agree to leave our laptops in their bags (not even on the table where we’ll be tempted to open them!) in exchange for an Internet time out every 90 minutes then we can all drive better behavior.

Think of it like a smoking break for email addicts.

And … Just say “no” to laptops in board meetings. I’m taking the pledge today.

You?

Image courtesy of Fotolia and the generosity of Ryan Born

  • Anonymous

    I remember a post a while back talking about focusing everyone towards each other instead of towards the screen (can’t remember who exactly). What would be nice is a way to tether 2 – 4 iPads in the middle of the table, that is only to display the information needed during the meeting. Could be controlled by presenter or could have some basic collaboration. It would make it easier to implement the no laptops or iPads rule (except those provided/tethered).

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    Email addiction as a negotiation tool? No cigarette/email untill we close this deal :-)

  • http://joeyevoli.com Joe Yevoli

    Haven’t been part of a board meeting yet, but I think this makes perfect sense.

    I’ve actually been trying to limit the amount of windows/tabs I have open on computer to ensure a higher amount of focus on the task at hand.  Like you said, we’re human.  If my email is open all day it’s hard not to jump back to that tab whenever I see the count change.

  • Anonymous

    My last focused working team meeting we put all the laptops and iphones into a box and brought them back in.  I led from the front on that on – put my stuff in with the receptionist and only had a legal pad in front of me.  At the break I discussed my decision.

    By the end of day one we had 100% of people focused.

    -XC

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I still like white boards or good ole fashioned discussions.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Like that!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Totally. I turn off email and Twitter for much of the day.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    awesome.

  • Anonymous

    Laptops and various iDevices at meeting are a symptom of a problem. Most meetings are too long, boring and without and any real productive out come. Change this and the devices will disappear.

  • John Saywell

    Definitely going to follow through on this one!

    The excuse one of my directors has is that he doesn’t print any board papers. But i’ll see if I can get him to make notes on any issues he wants to discuss from his pre-reading :-) so that he can just bring up the key points.

    You are so right- the value is from the intensive discussions and we do this best when we’re not distracted or reading.

  • Steve Bennet

    My iPad or blackberry doesn’t come out until the “death by PowerPoint” starts. It is a complete waste of time to go through a deck that was sent out before the meeting. Pick one or two strategic items to focus on and let’s keep the meeting to 90 minutes. I send out a bunch of posts to CEO’s (including yours and Steve Blank’s), but the ppt crutch is hard to break.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    This ones got me feeling really good about our board.  It’s also good to see I’m not the only one that keeps the cell phone in our car / my wife’s purse when we are on a date.  Muchos gracias for the kind photo credit.  

  • Anonymous

    Another way to look at it is to minimise formal meetings if u can’t drop altogether  as per this article

    http://www.smartcompany.com.au/information-technology/20111026-catch-of-the-day-tips-250-million-revenue-for-2011-12-five-lessons-smes-can-learn-from-its-success.html
    Excerpt here:No board meetings, no formal meetings of any kind. Instead, the heads of business get together occasionally, discuss new features, and then do them.”It’s a big advantage we have over other players,” he says. “The Gerry Harveys and so on need a board meeting. We just try things, and if they work, great, and if they don’t, we move on.”

  • Tony

    Just don’t forget that some people of the slightly autistic and hyperactive kind (ie a lot of really smart nerds) actually are able to focus more on what’s going on if they sort of distract part of their brain by doing other stuff at the same time.

    And…

    Personally I like to factcheck/research the stuff being talked about as I listen to it, as that makes for more productive discussions and less of a need for yet another meeting at a later date.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan

    Should be the case in all meetings. Not just boards. 

    Couple of rules that could work for all meetings - 

    - No laptops, no gadgets
    - Have standing meetings. This way we don’t have long winded discourses.
    (For long meetings where discourses are expected, maybe alternate sitting and standing every 30 mins!)

  • COinTO

    It is most frustrating when, someone at the meeting says “I didn’t know we were going to do that”, and you respond with “We discussed it at the last meeting”. Awkward silence (for some)…during which you are thinking “it must have been when you were looking at your !*#$%…”

    This happens frequently and should not.
    I’ve got to stop reading blogs and get more work done too – damn!

  • Nycgolf

    I am confused…you just posted about how twitter was undervalued and yet you have the service off all day.

  • Guest

    We use an electronic board book solution that allows off line access to our board materials. These materials are pushed out a week or two prior to the meeting. We provide our directors with a netbook and wireless mouse to access and reference board materials during the meeting. The search and annotation functions make it easy to takes notes and quickly find what then are looking for.  Cellphones, smartphones and internet access during meetings for directors is not allowed. The only electronic communication that leaves the board room is done by the recording secretary or administrative assistant for setting up incoming/outgoing dial in meeting attendees, notifying meeting planners the meeting is running long or to send in the next consultant or presenter. We must have an exceptional board.

  • Cookie Marenco

    This was a great post, Mark!  Thankyou!  No personal computers or smart phones or iPads.

    Couple of other things we’ve found valuable.

    Record the meetings.  No one ever asks to hear it afterwards, but it’s a great fall back.

    Have the assistant who is operating the recording device allowed internet and computer for researching facts, etc.  A good assistant will be following the conversation and will have searched before anyone had the time to ask the question.

    Have a few snacks on hand to handle low blood sugar arguments.

    Promised to treat everyone to a drink if the meeting ends on time and the agenda is met (best when meetings end at close of the day.. :)  My new secret weapon.  I’m shocked how well this works!

    Cookie Marenco
    Blue Coast Records

  • http://twitter.com/alecdibble Alec Dibble

    On a side note, someone I am working with introduced me to a great idea.  At the beginning of the meeting, everyone says something they are thankful or grateful for.  This trick really helps the tones and productivity of the meetings and gives you a little insight into some of the people you are talking to.

  • http://twitter.com/brianmesic Brian Mesic

    I agree 100%.  As an attendee, I find it distracting when other BOD members (or company executives) are buried in something other than the discussion.  What’s it like for the CEO?  Of course too many BOD meetings are too long and too unfocused on what’s really important. 

  • Jane Virtual Agent

    I agree with your post… These gadgets only serves a s a distraction during a meeting. It may be helpful at times but there are certain moments when the meeting gets a little boring, then one is faced with temptation to check their email, Facebook, or tweeter account which will surely cause  a divert in their attention.

  • http://kiyany.obozrevatel.com/life/sekretyi-pokoreniya-sotsialnyih-setej-ot-web-promo.htm webpromo

     Very informative and well written post! Quite interesting and nice topic chosen for the post.

  • http://zivazmanov.blogspot.com/ Ziv Azmanov

    Hi Mark,

    I agree with every word you wrote. In fact, this is one of my policies in any meeting that I run.

    By the way, I coincidentally have written about this same topic myself. If you get a chance, I would appreciate your comments and feedback on my post: http://zivazmanov.blogspot.com/2011/11/to-be-effective-first-be-present.html

    Thanks,
    Ziv.