Making Meetings Not Suck

Ran into an interesting post on “The Context of Things” which was titled “The Gravest Meeting Planning Sin” and it hit a chord with me. You see, when I was young and starting out I was also kind of lazy. The reason was I’d spent a lot of time working on a farm for a guy who believed strongly that work shouldn’t be fun, otherwise it wouldn’t be work. The result was I wanted to work for a big company that had lots of meetings because then I wouldn’t have to work and I could spend my days chatting with folks.

Ironically, I then went to work at IBM at a time when all they seemed to do was have meetings and that quickly became my new definition of hell. Rather than finding these massive numbers of meetings fun, I found them filled with annoying people who seemed to relish in creating work for others and arguing about pretty much everything being discussed. If Satan had walked into the room and told me I’d died and gone to hell I wouldn’t have been surprised.

One series of meetings stuck with me. They were meetings of about 35-40 of us and we were discussing who would pay to fix the bugs in a cross-department software application that was critical to customers. These meetings were semi-monthly and they went on for the better part of 6 months for one to two hours at a time until two managers got fed up, came in over the weekend, and fixed the bugs. So we’d spent something like 1,000 man hours discussing something that took less than 24 man hours to actually fix. The only thing I’d heard of to that point that was stupider was when my home county spent $9 million on studies to prove the monorail from Disneyland to the LA Airport wouldn’t be profitable and the damn thing had only been estimated to cost $3 million to build at the time.

I wonder how many companies would go from loss to profit if they just eliminated meetings?

Doing Meetings Right

The referenced piece, which is really worth reading, suggests that before you even schedule a meeting you ask two questions. What is the point of the meeting- or why do you need to pull a bunch of people into a room to discuss something? And do you really need a meeting? For a lot of the meetings I’ve attended in my career if the executive just made the decision they were paid to make they wouldn’t have needed to pull a bunch of really busy folks into a room for an hour. I’d add figuring out the cost of the meeting in terms of lost productivity and/or time. As my example above pulling 40 people into a room to address a problem that two people could just fix is stupid and you’d be better off just finding a way to motivate the two folks who actually need to do the work.

Once the meeting is scheduled (assuming the reason makes sense and there isn’t a less expensive way to accomplish the same goal) the article recommends you set an agenda. The piece argues that your first sixth is the introduction which includes the problem you are trying to solve. The next sixth is sharing what everyone needs to know to discuss the subject. Then two sixths on the actual discussion and finally close with a summary of what was discussed and an action plan.

Even before this I’d add selecting the minimum number of attendees necessary to accomplish the goal. Often people can get concurrence from subordinates or co-workers without them being present and the fewer people the easier it is to reach consensus and the less it costs your firm.

Several of the folks I used to work with would walk into a meeting, ask to see the agenda, and if there wasn’t one, turn right around and walk out concluding it was a waste of their time. I wish I’d done more of that myself.

I agree with the author of the piece that after the meeting you want to send out an action plan and that scheduling a follow up meeting is a mistake unless you actually like never ending meetings. Often you can just manage progress with individual members individually.

Wrapping Up: Meetings Suck

I’m a firm believer that the world would be a more productive and likely happier place if many of the folks that call and mismanage meetings were just shot. The number of man lives lost to what is often just a time suck is criminal. As an organizer, question whether a meeting is needed and, as an attendee, whether you really need to attend. There are often far better ways to get things done.

But if you have to do a meeting do it right. Pick the minimum number of right people, set clear goals, manage the time tightly and don’t make it a recurring event. For, like the author of the column, I agree we need to focus on the quality of our engagements more than the quantity and get some of our time back.

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