It is almost impossible to imagine modern business, non-profit, or government work getting accomplished, without people gathering in a seemingly endless round of meetings. Meetings are so much a part of our everyday work life that we rarely question their necessity, although we complain about their number incessantly. The only thing that changes when you become a manager, is that you get to call some meetings of your own.
As I rose to the loftier heights of the management hierarchy, I began to suspect that there was some insidious correlation between one’s level of management and the number of meetings you must hold and attend; the higher you rose, the more meetings constituted the bulk of your day. At times, I would cynically calculate the precise amount of time I actually participated by making a comment, compared to the time I spent attempting to stay focused and sometimes awake.
Now I am not suggesting that meetings in the workplace have little value. On the contrary, some meetings are essential to organizational success. But in order to minimize the number of gatherings where we spend most of our time making little if any meaningful contribution, let me suggest the difference between the meetings we should and should not hold, or have to attend.
THE GOOD MEETING
It is fairly easy to describe a good meeting. It has a clear, well understood purpose relevant to one’s job. Attendees are limited to individuals who have a direct connection to the issue or purpose of the gathering and the expectation is that everybody will actively and frequently participate. Often there is a pre-circulated agenda, allowing attendees to prepare.
The good meeting is frequently chaired by someone skilled in facilitation — not always the boss — whose job is to get everybody involved and to keep them engaged. There is a desired outcome — information conveyance, some decision, or a deeper understanding of some issue or problem — and the facilitator keeps things moving in that direction. Participants discipline themselves — often with the facilitator’s help — keeping the air time they demand to a minimum.
At times, the discussion in a good meeting might get heated and tempers a bit frayed, but participants generally accept the emotional moments as part of a constructive process. In the end, only the sore losers in a debate tend to feel the meeting was a waste of their time, because they feel they have lost.
Good meetings prove their value because they move the organization forward toward widely agreed upon goals and objectives. Participants in good meetings feel like players and that their contribution is making a difference, however small. Equally important, they do not waste people’s valuable time, at the expense of the important work of the day.
THE BAD MEETINGS
Bad meetings unfortunately come in many shapes and forms. You should feel free to add your own descriptions to those I include here. I will describe only a few of my least favorite gatherings to give you the idea.
THE MONOLOGUE — One person, often the person who chairs the meeting, does most of the talking. Just try to stay attentive for long.
THE BRAGGING HOUR — These meetings usually involve going around the room or table, allowing everybody to attempt to impress the gathering with some accomplishment or achievement in their piece of the organization. Rarely are all these accomplishments newsworthy. Better to tell a few, pre-selected stories with real organizational significance and repeatable lessons and applications.
THE PHILOSOPHY HOUR — All of us have our own special way of looking at things. But when every meeting, no matter the issue, involves each of us holding forth on the same philosophy — or replaying the same philosophical arguments — everybody else has heard a hundred times, how is that an effective use of organizational time? Unless the arguments are relevant to some problem at hand, this meeting is simply a philosophy seminar.
THE INFORMATION DUMP — Often called the staff meeting, the information dump involves attempting to impart so much information in a short time frame, that it overwhelms participants, who promptly forget most of what they heard. Large quantities of information are often better disseminated electronically, allowing people to absorb it in manageable chunks. Keep information meetings brief, tightly focused, and topic-limited.
THE “IS THERE A POINT HERE” MEETING? — This is any group gathering from which participants emerge asking themselves or each other, what just happened in there?
THE DECISION MEETING THAT ISN’T — This meeting speaks for itself. People gather to solve a problem and take some action but either nothing gets decided in the end, or what supposedly gets decided never gets implemented. How’s that for a waste of organizational time?
THE MEETING THAT NEVER SEEMS TO END — While all meetings start somewhere, there are those which never seem to have a defined end. Unless someone has the courage to ask “are we done here”, everybody just sits, day dreams, doodles, or whatever, until eventual group exhaustion takes place.
So managers, if you intend to call a meeting for whatever purpose, make it a good meeting:
- Have a clear purpose relevant to your organization’s business needs and stick to it;
- Make certain participants know the purpose of your meetings in advance;
- Start and end on time; the shorter the meeting the better;
- Invite only those who are essential to the meeting’s purpose and involve them all during the meeting;
- Facilitate do not orate;
- If you require the attendance of participants, enforce that rule;.
- And, above all, if you decide something, implement the decision, and track and measure the results.
Believe me your colleagues will appreciate your efforts and meeting-time discipline.