Thursday, December 5, 2013

Meaningless Meetings

Have you ever wondered how much of your (working) life has been spent in meetings? Neither had we, until we met to discuss this article. After an animated debate, the consensus was that the human ability to multi-task probably evolved as a result of being stuck in too many gatherings, forced to feign interest and nod knowingly at the words of chieftains, shamans, professional meeting-junkies, and remote employees allowed on site to drivel on and on incessantly for hours and hours on end about nothing in particular. For those of us who can engage ourselves in scribbling, furtive email checking, or surreptitious abdominal crunches, a boring meeting can often be transformed into a partial, rather than a complete, waste of time.

But human beings are social creatures. They need to communicate to be happy and, in a company setting, they need to meet to agree on what to do and how to do it. So, what can be done to optimize these exchanges to ensure that they don’t become an all-consuming force sucking all the useful hours out of the day?

First and foremost, expectancies should be set. What do you and your fellow participants hope to get out of this meeting (apart from getting out of the meeting)? This includes some thought into expected participants, pre-requisite information required before the meeting, topics to be discussed, and some initial expectation of the end results/actions. The format of the meeting and communication media should also be considered. Can the goals be met “offline?” If so, maybe you don’t need a meeting after all! If it is unavoidable, then start building up and sharing those expectations in advance. Doing this will go a long way towards ensuring a productive experience for all concerned.

This doesn’t happen spontaneously; it takes some work, which may explain why managers sometimes end up taking the easy route by “just getting everyone into the room.” The frustrating thing about this is that a) it takes forever to get together – not least because everyone is attending other important meetings; and b) participants often arrive absolutely clueless about why they are there. Thus they can barely contribute anything at all, let alone constructive input. The result is that it takes a painfully long time to reach agreement and take important decisions. To get the most out of a meeting, the moderator should keep track of the discussion and action items. If the conversation starts to drift away from point or someone monopolizes the airtime, it is for the moderator to decide whether it’s better to refocus the audience or to continue exploring the new direction. We found it helpful to document teams’ regular meetings discussion topics and action items for the updates as needed.

Speaking of regular meetings that seem to be scheduled to run into infinity: while they can work great at ensuring consistent practices, some of them outgrow their purpose and become events in which fewer and fewer participants actually participate; fed up of constantly reporting, “Nothing to report.” These meetings do suit some people, however, because they fill up the calendar and make everyone appear “busy”.

There are a few exceptions. Executive team members should try to meet regularly and often, regardless of agenda. Running a company is a bit like being in a marriage: if you don’t see each other often enough, you start to grow apart. Additionally, if there is an emergency that warrants a quick huddle, it’s insane to wait. There should be meetings scheduled to share official news (also communicated in-writing). And, finally, team members should have the opportunity to connect simply to enjoy each other’s company. This could be in the break room catching lunch together or at the ping pong table. We’ll never get rid of all those “meaningless” meetings, but maybe they will be fewer in number and much less meaningless.

Rachel, Daniil, & Dmitry

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