Make Meetings Matter (M3)

How many meetings do you attend each day at work? What does that translate into per week or per month? What percentage of your day is spent in meetings? Has this time grown in recent years, decreased, or stayed the same? Meetings seem to be mushrooming. For many of us, meetings are the biggest time spend during our work days. This has been particularly the case in a work from home context. Meetings are a lot like responsiveness. These both seem to be ways for us to try to come to terms with being apart. In order to show we’re doing something or in an effort to connect, we’re meeting more, not less. We seem to spend a large chunk of our work time in meetings.

At what point does the law of diminishing returns apply to meetings? How many meetings are too many? Does it seem that more time is spent meeting and talking about things than actually doing productive work? Meetings may be more about busywork than real work. It can be about politicking and posturing for status instead of making a positive contribution to the organization. It’s easier to criticize than it is to create. We use the guise of collaboration to support conversations in meetings. However, what is getting done besides criticizing and complaining versus constructing and creating breakthroughs? How many meetings have you sat in where you knew the real issues were not being discussed?

There are any number of meaningful reasons to have meetings. Of the meetings attended, are there some for which you’re responsible to run? What types of conversations do you have in meetings? Do you discuss strategy and tactics, where you’re going as an organization, and how you’re going to get there? Is there discussion about keeping track of the day to day? Are meetings a place where different people in the organization are informed about what each part may be up to? Are meetings an opportunity for attendees to participate in defining the priorities of the business? Do meetings serve to define and deliberate decisions? Do they serve to assign and allocate responsibility for various tasks? As Patrick Lencioni writes in Death by Meeting, “For those of us who lead and manage organizations, meetings are pretty much what we do.” Unfortunately, most of us aren’t inspired by the meetings we attend. Why is there a disconnect between the ideal meeting and our actual experiences?

As an organization grows, so, too, does the number of meetings. On some level this makes sense as with more staff spread out in an organization, meetings afford the opportunity for disparate departments to stay in touch with each other. Meetings serve to coordinate the activities of many. Additionally, we may be mired in meeting misery because they’re used as an excuse or escape from actually making tough decisions. They are vehicles used to discuss and defer as opposed to detail and deliver. An alternate addictive force for meetings is that meetings make us feel good. We reinforce our social bonds with team members, pat each other on the back for our mutual good judgement and celebrate our shared beliefs. We believe we’re building our culture and that we’ve got things all figured out. Unfortunately, we may be oblivious to the potential that our collective agreement has closed our perspective, limited discussion, and obscured alternate options for progress.

Meetings have a cost. At a minimum, the cost is the cumulative sum of the pro-rated salary of all attendees. This can add up in a hurry making meeting costs leap into the thousands of dollars an hour. Keeping the cost of a meeting top of mind may be helpful to ensure that we’re making each moment count. It should start by ensuring only those that truly need to attend are invited. After all, as a wise person has noted, “Meetings can be what I call a weapon of mass interruption.”

If you think your organization has too many meetings, Seth Godin offered in a blog post two ideas to consider. Godin put forth the ideas of meeting abstention and meeting nullification. Abstention is affording all potential meeting attendees the opportunity to opt out. When invited to a scheduled meeting, an attendee can simply say no thanks, send me the minutes or action items post. In so doing, the attendee opting out also opts out of providing any input to decisions. They gain the meeting time to be spent doing other work for the organization instead. The other idea to consider is nullification. Nullification gives all attendees to a meeting the ability to individually speak out during a meeting and say enough, let’s call this meeting to a close. When done, the meeting concludes, attendees go back to their jobs, and the organizer either provides the minutes/takeaways from the meeting or sends out a memo of some kind related to the meeting’s discussion. The suggestion with blunt force tools like abstention or nullification is that if they are offered and, in turn, being used, it’s a pretty clear indicator that meetings are on the wrong track. Godin asks whether we’re uncomfortable even considering the ideas of abstention and nullification if that suggests something about our meetings? If we’re uncomfortable with the idea of not attending or being able to unilaterally end a meeting it may suggest that we’re attending more out of the spirit of going along to get along than going along to get something accomplished.

At their essence, aren’t meetings a reflection of how an organization makes decisions? Furthermore, isn’t decision making ability likely a key success factor for organizations? Those that make higher quality decisions faster are likely to meet more success in the marketplace. Management meetings that misfire represent a cause for disconnect between performance and potential. Isn’t it reasonable that poor meetings likely lead to poor quality decisions? Shouldn’t we be highly motivated to make meetings matter in order to get the best possible decisions produced as the outcome? What adjectives would you use to describe your meetings at work? Are they punctual, focused, and purposeful or apathetic, aimless, and avoided? Are the feelings generated by meetings likely to translate into attitudes brought to other activities in the organization? Is it possible that your company’s culture is a reflection of the attitudes exhibited in management meetings? Could it be that interest and engagement drive participation and attention in meetings which fuel more focused decision making?

For an activity where we spend so much time and is used as a key part of planning business activities, we should be highly motivated to do the best job possible as opposed to passively participating. Our first job as a leader of meetings is to give attendees a reason to care. We need to know why we’re there. There should be clarity as to purpose and each attendee should be needed to contribute. Meetings aren’t mere “to-dos” on our calendars. They’re not just ways to fill in our days. Meetings should be about more than listening to leaders drone on about tedious administrative topics.

Lencioni suggests leaders remind people about the importance of meetings in order to gain the engagement of attendees. For example, consider reminding attendees that competitors benefit from us being bad at meetings. The allocation of our organization’s limited resources is the product of the conversations we have together. All in the organization depend on us to get these decisions correct for their and our personal futures. What we’re discussing and doing in this meeting, therefore, matters.

Lencioni notes that meeting frequency and duration should depend on the nature of the conversation. Not all meetings need to fit into rigid lengths or cover the same agenda items. There’s different meeting types for different purposes. Additionally, Lencioni invites us to consider an inverse relationship between meeting frequency and duration. That is, where we meet frequently, the meeting duration should be less. A criticism of many corporate meetings is that an inordinate amount of time is spent weekly discussing trivial matters and less time is spent discussing impactful strategic direction. Lencioni considers what he calls “Meeting Stew” as “the single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is this tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting.”

To avoid the mess of meeting stew, Lencioni suggests four meeting types. The daily check in is intended to last five to ten minutes and be done standing up. It involves a handful of leaders and has as it sole objective communication of who is doing what over the next day. The intent is to keep others in the loop so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. From here, a weekly meeting is suggested where the time is limited to thirty minutes to a maximum of one hour where a slightly broader perspective is considered. It’s still focused on operational issues in the here and now. However, the operational issues are considered against some dashboard of metrics that are consistently presented and reviewed. From this weekly meeting comes a monthly meeting which covers a slightly broader range of issues. It, too, is operationally focused and may be built around a review of the prior month’s performance. Finally, Lencioni suggests a quarterly or semi-annual meeting built around strategic discussions.

With these four meeting types, participants know what should be discussed at each. Should a conversation drift into a topic that belongs elsewhere others are encouraged to jump in and suggest tabling the item until the next meeting type is scheduled. With the meeting purpose top of mind focus can be funnelled in order to improve decision making. Lencioni’s experience suggests that companies that move from painful to positive meetings experience upticks in staff engagement and productivity. Better meetings lead to better decisions which lead to improved execution. Getting together less may allow staff to get going faster and go further.