Meetings, Bloody Meetings

We are notoriously bad at meeting. Which is a fascinating comment, when you get down to it, considering the incredible amount of time that we actually spend in meetings. It’s rarely a case of “another day, another meeting.” It’s a case of, “another day, another fully packed string of appointments.”

That said, there are no end of articles and references written with the express intent of making our meetings better.

Several have crossed the frontal lobes of my consciousness in the past week, including this one in the Harvard Business Review. It’s a well written article. There is nothing exceptionally wrong or objectionable with the advice that it provides. It’s actually quite useful and pragmatic. And that would be precisely my issue with this, and other articles offering advice on better meetings. We already know how to conduct effective meetings; we just don’t apply what we know.

Good meeting etiquette is, at its essence, not terribly different than good etiquette in any other social context. The golden rule of “do unto others as you would have done to you” stills holds as being an astonishingly useful single piece of advice. And yet meetings start late, finish late, ramble, descend into bickering and sniping, get distracted by ringing and buzzing phones and often fail to produce anything with a passing resemblance to usefulness.

Good meetings take time and effort to organize, if they are going to produce useful and meaningful results. When we pack a half-dozen meetings or more into a day, the likelihood of any planning having actually occurred prior to it starting is pretty remote. Worse, we typically don’t take time at the start of the meeting to fill the void by quickly sketching a plan. The result is that we start where we start, finish when we are fed-up, resigned or exhausted, and plan to have another meeting to continue the discussion. None of this is particularly helpful, useful or productive. And yet, inexplicably, we routinely repeat the same behaviours, rather than taking the time to sort out a different approach that might work better.

The reality of this struck home in a recent article in Fast Company. ”Team members whose tasks are updated and on schedule get extra time to get work done, and you can focus your time talking to individuals who are behind schedule or who aren’t reporting their progress,” Grainger says. This pretty I actually had to stop and read that twice. The implications are breathtakingly perverse. Perform well, and you can keep going. Fall behind, and we’ll punish you by making you go to a meeting.

There is an achingly strong likelihood that the reason that projects are behind and that teams are failing to keep reports updated is because of all the meetings they are in. And the solution to this when projects and teams run into challenges? Why, more meetings, of course.

Perhaps we need to remember that meetings are a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. For them to be effective, they need to serve a purpose. They do not need to be long, or ritualized, or routine. If they are, they are probably outliving their usefulness. And if we want our projects and teams to be productive, giving them time and space to do their work is the most likely means of ensuring that happens. Fewer meetings would be a great place to start.

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