Let’s talk about Organisation’s problem child. Let’s talk about meetings.

Meetings can occasionally be very good; they can even occasionally be inspirational. They can also be dull and fail to meet their potential and at their very worst they can be dysfunctional.   They are often bad more often than they are good. But rather than looking at their performance and giving them a development plan to improve, they are promoted and allowed to run the organisation. We let meetings be in charge of driving the business rather than the business driving the meetings or even deciding whether a meeting is  even necessary.

So let’s talk about meetings.

  • We spend on average 26 days a year in meetings.
  • The more senior you are in an organisation the more time you can spend in meetings (most professionals attend 15 meetings a week)
  • The more senior you are, the more time you can spend in meetings (50-90% of your time).
  • 71% of senior managers view them as unproductive, but most meetings are called by senior managers.
  • 50% of Agendas are recycled.

We know that they always/often don’t add value and too many meetings are the number one source of frustration but we don’t change it and we don’t talk about them in a purposeful way (only 2% of organisations ask about it in their staff surveys).

A really good meeting drive issues forward and to use the group mind or the organisation to come up with ideas and get collective agreement to a direction of travel and actions. A good meeting is focused on achieving well defined organisational outcomes[1], yet many of them focus on going around problems rather than doing. Yet, if we know all this, how come we don’t change them? What is the gain that keeps us addicted? How come it’s the organisations that have the worst meetings that have the most meetings?

What do we get out of meetings?

Even when we know something doesn’t work for us, we often keep doing it because we get something out of it. It meets a need and until we can meet that need in  a different way (or something bigger trumps it), we keep doing it and  we carry on with our addiction to meetings.  So how come? What is it that we get out of meetings that keeps us doing it? Having spent a large amount of my time in and around organisations here is my hypothesis:

  • Inclusion, Engagement and Connection
  • Time Off/Mini Respite
  • Reassurance
  • Avoidance
  • Timetable your Day

Inclusion, Engagement and Connection

Managers invite people to meetings as they want to be inclusive and if something has been shared at a meeting then people have been engaged, right? And people want to go to meetings because they feel excluded if they’re not invited. This then makes bigger and bigger meetings that become impossible to handle (some I know have forty plus people on the attendee list). Larger meetings just have additional dysfunction; more side conversations, more passive participants and more people doing other things.  It’s impossible for the Chair to manage effectively and participation veers towards witnessed monologues and nothing is decided, no action agreed, and it just peters on. It also takes more courage to speak up as you are performing to an audience rather than participating in a conversation.

If the purpose of your meeting is to inform people, then it’s not a meeting. It’s an information sharing forum. Meetings make people think they are being consulted and have a say. If what you are doing is informing them to keep them in the loop, then be clear about that otherwise it’s a faux consultation and people will be disillusioned and feel like they are not being listened to. At worst, they will become disenfranchised, disconnected and disengaged from the organisation. You will have succeeded in making the inclusion and connection worse.

Time off/mini respite

When I asked for people’s view on meetings via twitter – one person responded with “it’s an opportunity for a wide-eyed nap”.  A client in a busy organisation told me that people used it as breathing space from their busy day jobs, an opportunity to get away from the ringing phone or the constant demands. If that is the issue, then a meeting isn’t the answer. If that is the issue, then you have something more fundamental and systemic going on.

The larger the meeting, the more opportunity there is to hide in plain site and take a break, daydream or get on with the never ending of job of reading and responding to your (mostly pointless) emails. People zone out until it’s their turn to speak and the meeting turns into a series of one to ones in public between the Chair and  subject holder, missing the opportunity to draw on the thinking and questioning skills or other (non) participants, who’ll all missing in action on their mini-breaks.  The meeting turns into Day Care for Adults.

Reassurance

 Meetings are called for reassurance. After all, if we have a meeting  it look like we are doing something and if we not getting somewhere then we can always call another meeting to solve the issue that the original meeting was meant to address. The more meetings we have, the busier we can say we are and the more valuable we must be to the organisation. After all, the most senior people attend the most meetings.  Meetings look like we are doing things, unfortunately, if your meeting is process driven then at best you are maintaining the status quo. If that status quo is working then you are at least not making things worse, but if it isn’t then the aspic of your meeting is keeping you from moving forward.

Avoidance

 Meetings are a great way of avoiding doing a number of things. You can make yourself busy being busy in meetings and use it as a way of avoiding doing other things. You can avoid taking difficult decisions by making the meeting make the decision and you can avoid fall out by making difficult announcements in big meetings, where it’s difficult to voice dissent (especially if people have already checked out. After all, if things look like they might be getting tricky, you can always say the issue needs to be picked up outside of the meeting. A great way of avoiding anything awkward and it looks like it’s been inclusive as it was mentioned briefly. Even better it can infer legitimacy on a controversial decision.

Timetabling your Day

Meetings are also a way of timetabling your day and giving it structure. It’s also done for you so no DIY here – no taking responsibility for deciding how to spend your time. It’s all done for you. It’s almost like we don’t quite grow up and work is an extension of school. We’re all guilty of it, with a big white expanse of diary in front of us, like a blank page, we are struck with the equivalent of writer’s block and find a myriad of ways to procrastinate the time of way. At least if we have meetings, we have the illusion of doing something useful.

My Manifesto for Better Meetings.

  1.  They must be well planned and outcome driven.

 Planning a meeting should be an investment by the chair, otherwise Agendas get recycled or worse still, under recurrent headings that never change. This is letting the process run the business/organisation. If this is for governance reasons you are letting the governance process (or an external assessment) run the business – if you are doing governance well it is built into your outcome. Chair’s should be planning the overall outcome for the meeting and asking themselves “What they want to have happen?” as a result of the discussion. Meetings are they to find a solution and the Chair should be guiding the discussion and planning questions to help people participate and share thinking. That means planning questions, thinking about your participants and having strategies to make it work well. Chairing is a science and art and requires practice.

  1. Limit the size of your meeting

The ideal maximum limit of a meeting is 12, 15 at a push. Over that size, it’s hard for the chair to manage and pay attention to all the participants. It also makes it difficult to make it feel a safe enough space for open discussions.  (Also, smaller meetings do away with the requirement of those horrible tables with big holes in the middle that distance us physically and make it harder to connect.)

Larger numbers than 12-15 are something else and should be treated like that and planned accordingly i.e. information giving, workshop etc.

  1. Set out expectations

Any new meeting should have a clear remit, sometimes this is the terms of reference. This needs to be the case for any kind of meeting, including a Board Meeting. This enables clarity about the role of the meeting and enables the group to review the output and performance of the group. Are we on track or are we just having a conversation?

In addition, the participants benefit from clear expectations about behaviour and how to resolve conflicts. Conflicts and disagreements can be good if they are managed well. Innovation is largely born out of a paradox or contradictory points of views. Resolving this creatively would bring something new and probably a better way to reach an outcome. People often feel uncomfortable if there is conflict in a meeting, yet if we put parameters around how conflict will be dealt with, then this is a normal part of the process. This has the potential for making better organisational cultures.

  1. Ban Laptops, iPads etc.

One of the main points of having a meeting is to do the stuff that can’t be done via email.  Having your laptop or equivalent open at best provides a barrier and a worst gives people something to do other than participate. The success of a meeting isn’t just down to the Chair, it’s also down to the participants. If you are not participating, then you are not helping it to succeed. (If you really are trying to limit paper then put the agenda and reports on the screen.)

  1. Limit the length of reports and Limit the Length of the Agenda.

All reports should have a good summary (be no more than 4 pages in length) and a reason for why they are being discussed. They need to state what the key questions are they want the meeting to look at and the decision to be made. If they don’t have this, the Chair needs to reject them in the cause of making things better. If reports are too long and not clear, then people won’t read them. If they don’t read them, then they can’t participate (even if they pretend to have read them). Then the meeting is pointless and reverts to being a  one to one in public, where the report writer goes through their report and nothing happens.

Agenda’s need to meet the Goldilock’s test. They need to be just right length to fit the purpose and not too long to be indigestible. If you are not getting through everything in 90 minutes, your Agenda is too long. Even at a Board Meeting; being Board level doesn’t give you meeting superpowers.

  1. Force Involvement

 Be brave. Do things to provoke discussion. Break the meeting up; get people to leave the room go for a walk in pairs and talk about an issue, Use post it notes, plant a provocative question, have discussions in threes. Do something differently, it doesn’t matter what it is, just do it if it get’s people in the room, engaged and participating.

The Research shows that Adults have an attention span of 20 minutes. Therefore, when planning a meeting, if you plan different things to do, you refresh people’s thinking.

  1. Limit the length of the meeting and stick to it.

Parkinson’s’ law – work expands according to the time available to it. Meetings are the same. The Agenda should be planned to make the best use of time. Meeting should ideally be no more than 90 minutes (preferably less). If you can’t get through the Agenda in this time, you are probably discussing irrelevant things or going around in circles. More frequent shorter meetings are more productive than longer meetings. If you only get through half the Agenda in the time allotted and either rush through or defer the rest, it’s not well planned.

  1. Start on Time

 There’s not much to say about this. Just do it, unless there is a very very good reason otherwise. It sets an expectation and it’s respectful of the people who did get there on time.

  1. Review How it’s going.

Ideally, meetings should be reviewed for effectiveness at the end of every meeting. It’s everybody’s role to make the meeting successful, therefore it should be everybody’s role to review how it’s going. This isn’t about the Chairs Performance, it’s about everyone’s performance.  Anyhow, in an ideal organisation feedback would be part and parcel of everyday conversation. Using a feedback frame in a meeting as just something you do, would go a long way to normalising it and making it less scary.

The Chair should be planning the next meeting from the review of the last meeting. This will give them vital information about what to do next time. What to do again and what to do differently. It will also give permission to experiment as after all, you are going to see how it works.

  1. Lastly Defer Nothing, Avoid Nothing.

 There really should be very little that comes to a meeting that cannot be agreed at the meeting or discussed at the meeting.  If items are well planned they should have enough information for at least an interim decision. If they do not have this information, then the chair should reject them. If the parameters are right and there is a clear purpose and clear expectations, then very little should be out of bounds for discussion (unless it is to maintain personal confidentiality, e.g. HR issues).  It worries me when there is a consistent culture of discussing things outside the meeting – that’s a sign of an issue with organisational culture and transparency or the capability of the people in the meeting.  A common statement is “let’s discuss this offline” to which my response is “let’s not- what’s getting in the way of discussing it now”.

Do it differently

There are all sorts of reasons why meetings don’t work and why we still do them. One of the main ways that you can tell that they are not working is that decisions get made elsewhere (even contradicting a previously agreed group decision) by a few people in the know or there is organisational paralysis. Neither is good and is an indicator of a wider organisational issues, but changing how you do meetings is a start and quite a big one. If all meetings were productive, it sends a much bigger message about how things are done around here and one which is focused on making things happen rather than whiling away time.

And the one main take away is : Do less meetings and do them better.

Sources:

My Experience ! and the lovely people on twitter who contributed their experiences. 

The Surprising Science of Meetings – Steven G. Rogelberg

Bad Meetings Happen to Good People – Leigh Espy

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/we-spend-26-days-in-meetings-at-work-thats-more-than-your-holiday_uk_5d5a6b08e4b056fafd0e6683?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvLnVrLw&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAHfwaENCw8C10vhaU2L0adLSJEWzqQITyT_TixyhuOV3Vw8_zPwiJUnx6fbkEn-fKBG-97e27ntZg3dvMdiEPNuJYt0Vd7pA9OD_s_R6uS28qcu3f_5aXtZEJ0dIp6f9d6nfx90FPBN8cpyK83k3vFTpoeLI-4dIDCwvqMl-tvas

https://www.themuse.com/advice/how-much-time-do-we-spend-in-meetings-hint-its-scary

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/attention-span-average-british-person-tuned-in-concentration-mobile-phone-a8131156.html

https://www.fastcompany.com/3033232/9-science-backed-methods-for-more-productive-meetings

[1] This is often one of the problems – the organisational outcomes are not well defined and focus on process rather than deliverables.