If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be “meetings.”

― Dave Barry

dt170331 copyMeetings. Meetings, Meetings. Meetings suck. Meetings are awful. Meeting are soul sucking, time wasters. Meetings are a good way to “work” without actually working. Meetings absolutely deserve the bad rap they get. Most people think that meetings should be abolished. One of the most dreaded workplace events is a day that is completely full of meetings. These days invariably feel like complete losses, draining all productive energy from what ought to be a day full of promise. I say this as an unabashed extrovert knowing that the introvert is going to feel overwhelmed by the prospect.

Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.

– Peter Drucker

Project Quickstart – Tenstep with regard to Round Table Business Meeting

All of this is true, and yet meetings are important, even essential to a properly functioning workplace. As such, meetings need to be the focus of real effort to fix while minimizing unnecessary time spent there. Meetings are a vital humanizing element in collective, collaborative work. Deep engagement with people is enriching, educational, and necessary for fulfilling work. Making meetings better would produce immense benefits in quality, productivity and satisfaction in work.

Meetings are at the heart of an effective organization, and each meeting is an opportunity to clarify issues, set new directions, sharpen focus, create alignment, and move objectives forward.

― Paul Axtell

dt131003 copyIf there is one thing that unifies people at work, it is meetings, and how much we despise them. Workplace culture is full of meetings and most of them are genuinely awful. Poorly run meetings are a veritable plague in the workplace. Meetings are also an essential human element in work, and work is a completely human and social endeavor. A large part of the problem is the relative difficulty of running a meeting well, which exceeds the talent and will of most people (managers). It is actually very hard to do this well. We have now gotten to the point where all of us almost reflexively expect a meeting to be awful and plan accordingly. For my own part, I take something to read, or my computer to do actual work, or the old stand-by of passing time (i.e., fucking off) on my handy dandy iPhone. I’ve even resorted to the newest meeting past-time of texting another meeting attendee to talk about how shitty the meeting is. All of this can be avoided by taking meetings more seriously and crafting time that is well spent. If this can’t be done the meeting should be cancelled until the time is well spent.

The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.

― Thomas Sewell

There are a few uniform things that can be done to improve the impact of meetings on the workplace. If a meeting is mandatory, it will almost surely suck. It will almost always suck hard. No meeting should ever be mandatory, ever. By forcing people to go to mandatory meetings, those running the meeting have no reason to make the meeting enjoyable, useful or engaging. They are not competing for your time, and this allows your time to be abused. A meeting should always be trying to make you want to be there, and honestly compete for your time. A fundamental notion that makes all meetings better is a strong sense that you know why you are at a meeting, and how you are participating. There is no reason for attendance to a meeting where you passively absorb information without any active role. If this is the only way to get the information, we highlight deeper problems that are all too common! Everyone should have an active role in the meeting’s life. If someone is not active, they probably don’t need to be there.

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Meetings at work present great opportunities to showcase your talent. Do not let them go to waste.

― Abhishek Ratna

There are a lot of types of meetings, and generally speaking all of them are terrible, and they don’t need to be. None of them really have to be awful, but they are. Some of the reasons are a tremendously deep issue with the modern workplace. It is only a small over reach to say that better meetings would go a huge distance to improve the average workplace and provide untold benefits in terms of productivity and morale. So, to set the stage, let’s talk about the general types of meetings that most of us encounter:

  • Conferences, Talks and symposiums
  • Informational Meetings
  • Organizational Meetings
  • Project Meetings
  • Reviews
  • Phone, Skype, Video Meetings
  • Working meetings
  • Training Meetings

All of these meetings can stand some serious improvement that would have immense benefits.

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Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.

–John Kenneth Galbraith

The key common step to a good meeting is planning and attention to the value of people’s time. Part of the planning is a commitment to engagement with the meeting attendees. Do those running the meeting know how to convert the attendees to participants? Part of the meeting is engaging people as social animals and building connections and bonds. The worst thing is a meeting that a person attends solely because they are supposed to be there. Too often our meetings drain energy and make people feel utterly powerless. A person should walk out of a meeting energized and empowered. Instead, meeting are energy and morale sucking machines. A large part of the meeting’s benefit should be a feeling of community and bonding with others. Collaborations and connections should arise naturally from a well run meeting. All of this seems difficult and it is, but anything less does not honor the time of those attending and the great expense their time represents. In the end, the meeting should be a valuable expenditure of time. More than simply valuable, the meeting should produce something better, a stronger human connection and common purpose of all those attending. If the meeting isn’t a better expenditure of people’s time, it probably shouldn’t happen.

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A meeting consists of a group of people who have little to say – until after the meeting.

― P.K. Shaw

phd042417s copyConferences, Talks and symposiums. This is a form of meeting that generally works pretty well. The conference has a huge advantage as a form of meeting. Time spend at a conference is almost always time well spent. Even at their worst, a conference should be a banquet of new information and exposure to new ideas. Of course, they can be done very poorly and the benefits can be undermined by poor execution and lack of attention to detail.phd091813s copyConversely, a conference’s benefits can be magnified by careful and professional planning and execution. One way to augment a conference significantly is find really great keynote speakers to set the tone, provide energy and engage the audience. A thoughtful and thought-provoking talk delivered by an expert who is a great speaker can propel a conference to new heights and send people away with renewed energy. Conferences can also go to greater lengths to make the format and approach welcoming to greater audience participation especially getting the audience to ask questions and stay awake and aware. It’s too easy to tune out these days with a phone or laptop. Good time keeping and attention to the schedule is another way of making a conference work to the greatest benefit. This means staying on time and on schedule. It means paying attention to scheduling so that the best talks don’t compete with each other if there are multiple sessions. It means not letting speaker filibuster through the Q&A period. All of these maxims hold for a talk given in the work hours, just on a smaller and specific scale. There the setting, time of the talk and the time keeping all help to make the experience better. Another hugely beneficial aspect of meetings is food and drink. Sharing food or drink at a meeting is a wonderful way for people to bond and seek greater depth of connection. This sort of engagement can help to foster collaboration and greater information exchange. It engages with the innate human social element that meeting should foster (I will note that my workplace has mostly outlawed food and drink helping to make our meetings suck more uniformly). Too often aspects of the talk or conference that would make the great expense of people’s time worthwhile are skimped on undermining and diminishing the value.

Highly engaged teams have highly engaged leaders. Leaders must be about presence not productivity. Make meetings a no phone zone.

― Janna Cachola

 

Informational Meetings. The informational meeting is one of the worst abuses of people’s time. Lots of these meetings are mandatory, and force people to waste time witnessing evidence of what kind of shit show they are part of. This is very often a one-way exchange where people are expected to just sit and absorb. The information content is often poorly packaged, and ham handed in delivery. The talks usually are humorless and lack any soul. The sins are all compounded with a general lack of audience engagement. Their greatest feature is a really good and completely work appropriate time wasting exercise. You are at work and not working at all. You aren’t learning much either, it is almost always some sort of management BS delivered in a politically correct manner. Most of the time the best option is to completely eliminate these meetings. If these meetings are held, those conducting them should spend some real effort into making them worthwhile can valuable. They should seek a format that engages the audience and encourages genuine participation.

When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.

― A.W. Tozer

Organizational Meetings. The information’s meeting’s close relative is the organizational meeting. Often this is an informational meeting is disguise. This sort of meeting is called for an organization of some size to get together and hear the management give them some sort of spiel. These meeting happen at various organizational levels and almost all of them are awful. Time wasting drivel is the norm. Corporate or organizational policies, work milestones, and cheesy awards abound. Since these meeting is more personal than the pure informational meeting there is some soul and benefit to them. The biggest sin in these meetings is the faux engagement. Do the managers running these meetings really want questions, and are they really listening to the audience. Will they actually do anything with the feedback? More often than not, the questions and answers are handled professionally then forgotten. The management generally has no interest in really hearing people’s opinions and doing anything with their views, it is mostly a hollow feel good maneuver. Honest and genuine engagement is needed and these days management needs to prove that its more than just a show.

People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.

― Thomas Sowell

Project Meetings. In many places this is the most common meeting type. It is also tending to be one of the best meeting types where everyone is active and participating. The meeting involves people working to common ends and promotes genuine connection between efforts. These can take a variety of forms such as the stand-up meeting where everyone participates by construction. An important function of the project meeting is active listening. While this form of meeting tends to be good, it still needs planning and effort to keep it positive. If the project meeting is not good, it probably reflects quite fully on the project itself. Some sort of restructuring of the project is a cure. What are the signs that a project meeting is bad? If lots of people are sitting like potted plants and not engaged with the meeting, the project is probably not healthy. The project meeting should be time well spent, if they aren’t engaged, they should be doing something else.

Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.

― Spencer Johnson

downloadReviews. A review meeting is akin to a project meeting, but has an edge that makes it worse. Reviews often teem with political context and fear. A common form is a project team, reviewers and then stakeholders. The project team presents work to the reviewers, and if things are working well, the reviewers ask lots of questions. The stakeholders sit nervously and watch rarely participating. The spirit of the review is the thing that determines whether the engagement is positive and productive. The core value about which value revolves is honesty and trust. If honesty and trust are high, those being reviewed are forthcoming and their work is presented in a way where everyone learns and benefits. If the reviewers are confident in their charge and role, they can ask probing questions and provide value to the project and the stakeholders. Under the best of circumstances, the audience of stakeholders can be profitably engaged in deepening the discussion, and themselves learn greater context for the work. Too often, the environment is so charged that honesty is not encouraged, and the project team tends to hide unpleasant things. If reviewers do not trust the reception for a truly probing and critical review, they will pull their punches and the engagement will be needlessly and harmfully moderated. A sign that neither trust nor honesty is present comes from an anxious and uninvolved audience.

I think there needs to be a meeting to set an agenda for more meetings about meetings.

― Jonah Goldberg

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Phone, Skype, Video Meetings. These meetings are convenient and often encouraged as part of a cost saving strategy. Because of the nature of the medium these meetings are often terrible. Most often it turns into a series of monologs usually best suited for reporting work. Such meetings are rarely good places to hear about work. This comes from two truths: the people on the phone are often disengaged and listening while attending to other things. It is difficult to participate in any dynamic discussion, it happens, but it is rare. Most of the content is limited to the spoken word, and lacks body language and visual content. The result is much less information being transmitted, along with a low bandwidth of listening. For the most part these meeting should be done away with. If someone has something really interesting and very timely it might be useful, but only if we are sure the audience is paying real attention. Without dynamic participation one cannot be sure the attention is actually being paid.

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Working meetings. These are the best meetings, hands down. They are informal, voluntary and dynamic. The people are there because they want to get something done that requires collaboration. If other types of meetings could incorporate the approach and dynamic of a working meeting, all of them would improve dramatically. Quite often these meetings are deep on communication and low on hierarchical transmission. Everyone in the meeting is usually engaged and active. People are rarely passive. They are there because they want to be there, or they need to be there. In many ways all of meeting could benefit mightily by examining working meetings, and adopting their characteristics more broadly.

Training Meetings. The use of a meeting to conduct training is common, as they are bad. These meetings could be improved greatly by adopting the principles from education. A good training is educational. Again dynamic, engaged meeting attendees are a benefit. If they are viewed as students, good outcomes can be had. Far too often the training is delivered in a hollow mandatory tone that provides little real value for these receiving it. We have a lot of soulless compliance training that simply pollutes the workplace with time wasting. Compliance is often associated with hot-button issues where the organization has no interest in engaging the employees. They are simply forced to do things because those in power say so. A real discussion on this sort of training is likely to be difficult and cast doubt. The conversations are difficult and likely to be confrontational. It is easier to passively waste people’s time and get it over with. This attitude is some blend of mediocrity and cowardice that has a corrosive impact on the workplace.

One source of frustration in the workplace is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. But when the match is just right, the results can be glorious. This is the essence of flow.

― Daniel H. Pink

dt121226 copyBetter meetings are a mechanism where our workplaces have an immense ability to improve. A broad principle is that a meeting needs to have a purpose and desired outcome that is well known and communicated to all participants. The meeting should engage everyone attending, and no one should be a potted plant, or otherwise engaged. Everyone’s time is valuable and expensive, the meeting should be structured and executed in a manner fitting its costs. A simple way of testing the waters are people’s attitudes toward the meeting and whether they are positive or negative. Do they want to go? Are they looking forward to it? Do they know why the meeting is happening? Is there an outcome that they are invested in? If these questions are answered honestly, those calling the meeting will know a lot and they should act accordingly.

The cure for bad meetings is recognition of their badness, and a commitment to making the effort necessary to improve them. Few things have a greater capacity to make the workplace better, more productive and improve morale.

When employees feel valued, and are more productive and engaged, they create a culture that can truly be a strategic advantage in today’s competitive market.

― Michael Hyatt