The Meeting Trap

I get to talk with a lot of executives and teams in my business. More accurately, I get to listen to a lot of them. One of the things that I hear most commonly is “I am being meeting-ed to death.” There is even a book on the market from the prodigious business writer Pat Lencioni titled “Death by Meeting.”

If being bludgeoned by meetings is such a common issue, why have we not found a solution? The answer is that we are focused on the wrong problem. The Fall 2007 issue of The Conference Board Review features an article titled “Meetings: The Biggest Money Pit of Them All.” The article rightly points out that spending on meetings is out of control at most companies. I do not disagree; however, I respectfully think that they missed the point.

The question is not, “How do we cut down what we spend in time and money?” The important question here is, “How do we make the time and money we spend in meetings worth the investment?” Assume that you are unable to reduce one moment of the time you and your colleagues spend in meetings on a daily basis, or cut one penny out of the budget for larger meetings. How would you feel about meetings if every one of them had a clear outcome defined, was well designed, was a productive use of time and accomplished the outcomes established before the meeting took place?

One senior executive recently complained that the meetings hosted by the boss (the president and CEO) are “a complete waste of time. We go through endless presentations but have little real discussion. Nothing is really decided. Nothing is changed. And worst of all is what we are not getting done.”

Perhaps most damaging is that rarely will anyone have the courageous conversation with the boss. So the boss thinks it is a great meeting and does it every year – or, worse yet, every quarter.

The group calendaring installed on our office networks is also a challenge. Now anyone can call a meeting at any time for any reason. But how often do those people get trained in the planning, design, facilitation and follow-up needed for a successful meeting? The answer in most organizations is “never.” In short, we have created the perfect storm for making meetings a huge sinkhole of time and energy.

There are no silver bullets for making meetings work. However, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • The one thing that can happen better in a meeting than anywhere else is discussion, especially lively and passionate debate. If your meeting does not include time and topics for exchange of ideas, then are you certain you need a meeting?
  • Most meetings are doomed before they start because they were not designed with specific outcomes in mind. Use the end you want to create to design your meeting. Then write an agenda to support the design.
  • The more senior the participants, the more is at stake. Consider getting some help in the design of standing meetings and rethink how often and for what purpose the senior team meets.
  • Get a facilitator involved for important events. Meeting design and facilitation is an art and science acquired through training and long practice. It is not a casual skill learned by osmosis. Find someone whose training and capabilities match the value of the outcomes you wish to create. Especially for off-site meetings – if it is worth taking your senior team off site, then it is worth the professional fees of a meeting facilitator to ensure you get your money’s worth.

Meetings are perhaps the most common source of complaint and organizational pain. If you are interested in more information about meetings, visit the Entelechy Partners Web site, www.entelechypartners.com, to see more resources and to participate in a new research project about meetings.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, October 1, 2007.