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  • Paul Dean

The problem with meetings

Updated: Apr 8




Consider your workplace experiences last week and truthfully answer if any of the following thoughts wandered into your consciousness:

  • Who is driving this?

  • What is the purpose of this meeting?

  • Where could I be better spending my time?

  • When will I actually have time this week to get real work done?

  • Why am I even attending this?

Unless you belong to a truly privileged working environment (and they are infinitesimal in number), you most likely answered yes to nearly all of the above.


The sense that meetings corrode precious hours of productivity is widespread and well documented.  Hundreds of publications on enhancing organizational effectiveness through “fixing” meetings populate the New York Times best seller list and Harvard Business Review.  Scores of authors bluntly point to poorly run meetings as a ubiquitous source of value erosion in the corporate world.  Yet, the proffered solutions generally center on meeting framing and execution rather than the more existential question of their assumed need to exist.  What if we pivoted to a more daring cadence whereby meetings were sacrosanct and only reserved for addressing organizations’ most critical issues?


Meetings are mostly ineffective, but the core of problem is that leaders view them as a necessary evil.  How many times have you heard your colleagues groan about their day being marked by back to back with calendar invites for six hours, but they were the ones who mandated the forums in the first place?  Better yet, how many snide comments have you heard about having to sift through another PowerPoint presentation, but it’s the only acceptable form of communication to begin with?  For many, endless hours of meetings has been the norm for the entirety of their career.

 

Many prominent journalists and authors have viable solutions to get the most out of a typical hour in the conference room (or Zoom call).  Unfortunately, engineering greater process rigor to make meetings more effective doesn’t address the underlying problem that participants simply despise attending them. Solutions that anchor on fixing execution will generally miss the mark because they invariably focus on shifting behavioral outcomes.  People routinely get promoted to new roles, transfer offices, or leave the company.  Instilling revolutionary meeting practices will be a never ending assignment due to the fluidity of personnel coming and going and the required cultural retraining associated with it.  Furthermore, new leadership can completely upend these practices and bring back the archaic meetings of old.  At the end of the day, the best way to rip the Band-Aid off and create lasting change is to amend the foundational principles of the organization and eliminate unnecessary meetings entirely.

 

At what cost?

           

If everyone agrees that meetings are generally a waste of time, but regrettably necessary to the bottom line, then surely there’s at least some tangible benefit?  The reality is quite bleak.  Let’s conservatively assume that in a 40 hour work week, leaders spend 50% of their time in meetings (almost certainly longer though). Twenty hours is a long time even when spent well, so what transpires throughout these periods?  Far and away, most of these sessions are nothing more than informational updates.  The presenters share information to whomever happened to be copied on the invite, soaking up the entire allotted time.  A halfhearted conversation may ensue, with little more than a stray question and ”great stuff team” from the chairperson before everyone meanders on to their next meeting with little fanfare.

           

As cynical as the above example may seem, honest reflection will reveal that the “informational update” is the most commonplace meeting in nearly all organizations, even highly successful ones.  Defenders of update briefs will be quick to point out the value in getting alignment and consensus from the team.  Ask yourself though, at what cost?  The previous example only considered the executive’s time, but how many man hours contribute to constructing these presentations?  For the sake of argument, the leader in question is the Chief of Operations and this is their weekly 90 minute Thursday update.  The COO presides over 8 departments, and each department has 10 minutes to present their respective portion.  The director of each department then spends an hour on Wednesday with their program managers to ensure all information is up to date and ready for the COO on Thursday.  It doesn’t stop there though.  The program managers then spend an hour with their teams on Tuesday in preparation for the call with the director on Wednesday.  If this sounds needlessly convoluted, that’s because it is.  In actuality, a simple 90 minute meeting has now spiraled into dozens upon dozens (potentially hundreds) of hours of preparation across the entire company.  Compound this one instance with several other informational meetings throughout the week and it becomes abundantly clear that meetings and their associated prep work are an all-consuming task for broad swaths of the organization.

           

A common retort to the above scenario may be to shrug it off and accept that this is simply how the corporate world operates.  But if leaders across industries believe that meetings are usually a waste of time, there must be a better solution to break the monotony and unlock the team’s fullest potential.  The status quo only remains the status quo when lack of inspiration becomes ossified and no one dares to be different.

 

A leap of faith

           

Open your calendar for next week.  Are you met with a sea of multicolored  calendar invites with hardly a 30 minute reprieve for lunch each day?  Now close your eyes and imagine that 75% of those blocks vanished from existence.  What would it take to get there?  As daunting or unrealistic as it may seem, this alternate universe is closer than it appears.

           

It is certainly intimidating to disband the primary venues for ingesting information about the business.  Reflecting back on the last update meeting though, how much of it can you remember?  What about from the update you received last Tuesday, or even the one a week before that?  You’d be hard pressed to summarize the key takeaways in more than one discrete sentence, if at all.  This is no fault of your own, or the team for that matter.  The sheer volume of information pouring in through meetings day in and day out is inundating.  However, if you can hardly remember the contents of a meeting several days ago, did it really justify the many hours that went into preparing for it?  What if there were a better way to convey the information therein, and even enhance its retention?

           

The suite of incredible products available today make the overwhelming prevalence of meetings mystifying.  Power BI dashboards, Excel modeling, the newly emerging Artificial Intelligence tools, and even simple email are all more than capable of transmitting the contents of a 90 minute meeting in mere minutes.  “But we already deploy all these and use them to great effect” one might reply.  Do you though?  Or do your teams spend countless hours each week transposing the insights into PowerPoint and rehearsing their ability to read them to a broader audience?  Unless the intent of the meeting is to receive a decision on a critical matter (very rarely the case), then it is simply a better use of everyone’s time to let our incredible visualization tools do the talking for us. 

           

Taking a leap of faith and eradicating simple update presentations will substantially clear everyone’s calendar and swing the doors to better productivity wide open. Soon, it will be apparent just how superflous the these meetings really were. Given the sophistication of the tools at our disposal, having a team member simply read content off a dashboard will feel like an archaeic relic of the distant past. If it seems like an insurmountable task, then I'd invite you try it for merely two weeks to see the benefits yourself. You have nothing to lose and stand to gain more than you know.

 

           

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