Meetings often are the tragedies of organizations. Many meetings suffocate initiative, disrupt productivity and poison attitudes.
This is tragic because good meetings are the jewels of organizations. Done right, meetings multiply the value of the knowledge, talent and skill collected in that place at that time. They produce remarkable payoffs for the organization, and heighten the participants’ productivity and enthusiasm. The immediate benefit contributes to continuous improvement.
If only the group would occasionally have a meeting about meetings, its native good sense could very well dissolve this epidemic of bad meetings, because the antidotes are relatively simple and sensible.
My credentials for this consideration are a personal history covering countless hundreds of meetings over five decades or so – first as a reporter covering meetings, then as an organization man who attended and ran meetings, now as a student of meetings helping leaders and managers derive the great benefits of good management.
Why are so many meetings so bad? Mainly because most of us don’t even think about the matter, and those who do sometimes are part of the problem.
We humans are a herd species, genetically programmed to assemble. So that’s what we do. We gather together, especially at times of opportunity or stress. So far so good. In organizational terms, that would mean meeting to make things better by creating a new thing or a solution to a bad thing.
Here’s where it gets out of focus. Meetings tend to take on a life of their own, and occur not to accomplish anything but because they are permanently engraved in the schedule. Everybody, sometimes even including the leader, complains, but the almighty meeting continues to grind away the soul of the organization.
At the worst, the meeting becomes a weapon in the group’s internal strife: Sullen staffers show up, because they’ll be punished if they don’t. The boss proves his/her continuing authority through the demonstrated power to drag these busy people from their work.
Most of the time, though, the meeting comes to occupy Tuesday morning simply because it’s Tuesday morning and we always meet on Tuesday morning. If back in time there was an expectation of value for this meeting, it long since has been forgotten.
Many unscheduled meetings – called for a specific purpose – waste just as much time because someone hopes they will solve a problem. As everyone sits there wasting time, it turns out the perpetrator didn’t do anything to explore the matter or discuss it with the one or two people who could deal with it.
It’s not unusual that the proper course would have been for the person just to make a decision and do something.
What’s the solution to the bad-meetings problem? First of all, to actually think about it, and then talk about it.
Well-managed organizations understand that communication is their lifeblood, and they know its various vehicles should be properly set up and usefully employed. They make sure they have effective channels among their various parts. They devise and follow sensible procedures for the use of email. And they plan and conduct meetings properly.
The role of meetings is quite specific in a sensible communication management system. There are organizational needs that can be met only by bringing together the right people with sufficient preparation for a clear purpose, and managing a productive exchange among them.
That means the right people – and only the right people – get proper notice, receive an advance agenda and do the necessary homework. They arrive on time, commit to a defined outcome, speak and listen courteously and openly in a disciplined process that lasts just long enough.
The meeting produces decisions and/or action assignments that are clear and relevant. Meeting notes or minutes are promptly produced and distributed to the pertinent parties.
Groups, like individuals, think about what they talk about, and they act on their thoughts. A little talk about meetings can be all it takes to ignite a very useful transformation.