January 15, 2012
If the workplace were a person, meetings would be the unidentifiable, gooey stuff stuck to that person's shoe.
Loathed almost universally, meetings gobble up time like ravenous tapeworms and often seem as productive as standing in soup. And yet they persist, as if our hatred only makes them stronger.
I decided this was a subject worthy of exploration, so I started by making up a 100 percent factual story about the origin of meetings.
Greek philosopher Aristotle had a lesser-known brother, Meetistotle, who invented "the Meeting" and was eventually stoned to death for doing so. Meetistotle's most memorable piece of wisdom was: "Let's get everybody together, because wasting time is more effective if we all do it in the same place."
Bazillions of years later, here we sit, bored blind in meeting after meeting after meeting, and praying that the sweet embrace of death will break the monotony.
It shouldn't be this way. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.
"We have failed as a culture because we've come to accept that meetings are just inherently bad," said Patrick Lencioni, president of The Table Group, a California-based management consulting firm, and author of the awesomely named book "Death by Meeting." "We're spending our time at meetings talking about things that aren't important, and that's crazy."
As I researched ways to make meetings more effective, I found a slew of completely ridiculous suggestions: Have some kind ball that people hold while they talk; encourage attendees to pretend the meeting is being held in a different place, like on a beach; do something called "rapid prototyping," which made me throw up in my mouth.
But Lencioni presented concrete, sensible ideas. He said meetings tend to be rambling and unfocused, a hodgepodge of missions stretched out over a two-hour slog. They should be more focused and put in better context.
First off, a meeting should include only the people who absolutely need to be there. There's no reason to bring the whole staff in to a meeting unless it's about something the whole staff needs to hear, and even then, perhaps an email will suffice.
Next, he suggests breaking meetings up into four formats.
Have a daily, 5-minute huddle with your team members, just for a lightning-fast update on what everyone's doing. No sitting down, just a quick chat.
Once a week, have a 45- to 90-minute meeting with the whole team.
"Spend 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning of that meeting going over the critical elements of your business, then put together a real-time agenda for the rest of the meeting based on the most important things that need to be addressed," Lencioni said. "You only talk about the most relevant things. If somebody raises some huge topic, say it's too big to talk about right now."
Those longer-term issues get discussed in strategic meetings held once a month or as needed.
The fourth format Lencioni uses is an off-site meeting once a quarter: "That's where you step back, get away from the office, take a breath and re-evaluate how you're doing. Even just a couple hours or a half-day; it could be at a hotel nearby or a restaurant. How are we doing? Is our strategy still right? 'How are we operating as a team?'"
What I like about this "four formats" approach is it gives everyone an idea of what meetings are going to be like, and it gives each type of meeting a purpose.
Another fresh voice on this topic comes from Alison Green, a career-advice columnist at AskAManager.org.
She believes calling meetings has become a knee-jerk reaction, one that sometimes reflects laziness on the part of managers.
"There are lots of people in a lot of offices where, inexplicably, the default reaction is, 'We need to have a meeting about this,'" Green said. "And it's just not often the case. You could pick up the phone and talk to someone for 3 minutes and deal with it. Or just send an email. If it's just to convey information, you probably don't need to haul everyone into a room."
The first of Green's suggestions for improving meetings is: Pause before you request one. Make sure a gathering is necessary.
The remaining keys include always have an agenda, open the meeting with a clear statement of what you're there to accomplish, stick to the agenda, be ruthless about starting and ending on time, and have a clear "owner" of the meeting.
"The owner of the meeting has to be someone who's assertive, a person who isn't concerned about making everyone feel good," Green said. "That person needs to keep the meeting directed, cut people off who are rambling and make sure the meeting's goals are met before the time is up."
By taking these steps, workers know meetings will be focused, limited and productive. That can certainly lessen the dread.
For final thoughts, I turned to Web personality MeetingBoy, an anonymous figure who unleashes funny and insightful meeting-related rants at MeetingBoy.com.
In a tweet, he summed up the cyclical madness of meetings: "I have 4 meetings today, and then later, no doubt, one with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done."
One of his primary suggestions for improving office life is to eliminate "status meetings," in which workers update the boss on what he or she is doing. Everyone ends up spending an hour in a meeting, when they could have each just spent 5 minutes conveying their information via email or in a quick one-on-one with the boss.
I agree with my anonymous anti-meeting conspirator. Simply getting rid of meeting-based boondoggles like status updates would boost morale. Do that and implement some of these other suggestions, and you may no longer have people walking into meetings with expressions usually reserved for those about to be executed.
I'll leave you with Meeting Boy's delightful "Four Steps for a Successful Meeting":
1. Have an agenda.
2. Send it out ahead of time.
3. Stick to it.
4. Don't invite me.
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