Why We Hate Meetings

The subject line of this week’s newsletter is, of course, a little melodramatic. Most of us don’t actually “hate” meetings. But if we’re being honest we’ll probably admit that many of the meetings we attend are not useful, productive, or enjoyable. Why is this the case, and what can be done about it?

In organizations we spend a great deal of our time in meetings of various kinds: project status reviews; weekly “staff meetings”; presentations to get budget approval or pitch a sale; crisis huddles; “town halls”; and so on. Meetings by and large adhere to the same basic form and structure wherever you go: in different companies, different industries, and different countries all meetings basically look the same, as if there were some ancient and sacred model of “the meeting” coded into human DNA or shared in our race’s collective unconscious.

A great deal has changed in the world, in business, and in technology over the last fifty years. But meetings in 2011 probably don’t differ much from the ones held in the 1960’s, with a few cosmetic exceptions: we now have videoconferencing (a debatable advantage), and the tool of stultification has become Powerpoint rather than the Memo.

Our colleague Mark Nevins believes that most meetings would be remarkably better and more productive if three simple rules were observed in designing and running them. Putting these rules into play will require us to do things differently (which is often uncomfortable at first) and may also challenge some of those unconscious assumptions we’ve been carrying around for generations.

Call them Nevins’s Rules for Meetings:

1. Ensure that the meeting agenda is OBJECTIVE-driven. Unfortunately, most meeting agendas tend to be TOPIC-driven: “Here’s a list of things we should cover.” To make matters worse, some of us often send out a note asking attendees “What else do you want to add to the agenda?” That’s a good intention that leads to disastrous results: an even longer list of topics to address! Every meeting should have a clear purpose or set of objectives: “Here’s what we are going to DO in this meeting.” The objectives should be meaningful and attainable, and the group should not spend time debating or reporting on anything unrelated to those objectives. If you start your meetings with clear objectives rather than just a list of topics, all participants will be much more engaged and feel like they are being guided by a purpose. (This brings up a related point: Once the objectives are clear, ensure that all of, and only, the people who need to be at the meeting to achieve the objectives are present. Meetings are collaborative exercises, not spectator sports. And people who dial into a meeting just to hit mute and catch up on e-mail are doing nothing other than running up the phone bills.)

2. In a meeting, do ONLY what you cannot do via other means. How many meetings have you attended where the whole day—or days—was spent with people projecting Powerpoint presentations at each other? Few of us are such riveting presenters that we can make spreadsheets come to life (even Robin Williams would be challenged there), and most of us can read a document far faster and more thoroughly than it can be presented. Circulate presentations prior, and focus the meeting on discussion and decision-making. Meetings tend to be resource-intensive: We are all giving up valuable time, and some of us have had to come in from out of town, incurring additional expense. Ask yourself, “Can this be done via a conference call, a circulated document, or e-mail?” If so, don’t waste meeting time on it.

3. Ensure that every meeting concludes with CLEAR next steps and accountability. This rule should be the simplest one, and yet it’s the one least often observed. Meetings usually run late and end in the chaos of everyone running to their next meeting, and as a result the most important part of the meeting is lost: What happens NOW? Every meeting should conclude instead with a clear set of next steps with specific accountability: What’s the action, what does the deliverable look like, who’s responsible for it, and in what timeframe? Use the “SMART” model if you like it: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. We have all seen good ideas sink into the morass of inertia, and we’ve all been to too many “Dйjа Vu Meetings”: “Didn’t we cover this last time? What did we decide?”

(Note: the rules above should not be confused with Robert’s Rules of Order, a hundred-year old but still very useful set of processes for committee deliberation and debate, which should be better-known in organizations today.)

If there’s interest from our readers, we can cover some of the more pragmatic nuts and bolts of effective meeting management and facilitation in a future newsletter. In the meantime, see what results you get by trying out Nevins’s Rules for Meetings in your organization. Let us know how it goes: info@nevinsconsulting.com

"And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." —Matthew 15:14