I am afraid I am onto my old hobby horse this week – meetings! A good eighty percent of my clients over the last six months have indicated to me that working virtually from home has increased the number of meetings they have each day. Most of them complain that these meetings are constant and back to back throughout the day, and often beyond. Most of them of them express their dilemma as “When do I get to do my job?” Many of them have stopped accepting meetings they don’t think they really need to attend, where they are able to do so.
Whilst declining meetings is a great start to the solution, it does only treat a symptom. It’s also difficult to decline a meeting unilaterally called by one’s line manager – and this form of disrespectful leadership appears to be increasingly prevalent!
Whenever my clients complain about their constant meetings, I ask the same question: “Are the meetings productive?” And their answer, at best, is “Seldom!”
As I have said before, meetings themselves are not bad. They are actually necessary, a valid means of discussing issues, brainstorming ideas and generally getting things done. For my money, meetings should seldom (probably never) be used as a report back mechanism. We can normally use email for that purpose; after all, anyone can open a spreadsheet or the previous minutes and read them. “Ah,” I hear you say, “but my people won’t read those reports if we send it to them. So we have to have a meeting to discuss those reports.” My response to this is, firstly, do we discuss those reports or does the person responsible for the report bore us to death going through their spreadsheet or the actions they have, or haven’t, taken since last meeting? And, secondly, why should we need to discuss something that everyone at the meeting can look through or read in preparation for a meeting? Thirdly, it talks to my leadership if my people aren’t taking responsibility in these things. After all, our teams are there for the purpose and benefit of a greater entity than the individuals in them. As part of a management team for example, I (together with my colleagues in the team) are responsible for the management of the business (or a part thereof) and not just for my department – that is our primary concern, focus and RESPONSIBILITY. My department is of course important, but its importance in relation to the management team is secondary.
Back to the (report-back) meetings themselves. My hypothesis has always been why do we need to gather (often expensive) brains around the table, albeit now a virtual table, to listen to a series of monologues and soliloquys? Wouldn’t we be putting those (often expensive) brains to better use if we actually required the brains to be used at the meeting, if they were used to co-create solutions, brainstorm innovative strategies and ideas (whether product- or organisationally-related) etc? Meetings should be primarily used as a vehicle to enable the generation of thought and solutions. Only then will meetings become more productive and perhaps less ubiquitous.
“What about budget meetings and monthly or quarterly management meetings?” you might ask. “Don’t we have to discuss our new budgets and our monthly progress?” My answer is, yes, we need to discuss aspects of the budget or management accounts that need discussing: issues or strategies or obstacles etc. But, please, not the spreadsheets, especially line by line – the people around the table are normally paid salaries that suggest that they are able to digest that stuff offline; and if they can’t, there is always someone in the finance or relevant department that can help them prior to the meeting.
For those of you that read my newsletters fairly regularly, you will know that my concerns about the way we use meetings unproductively goes further than what I have stated above. There are other remedies that would make meetings more productive: for example, cutting the time of each meeting by 40%, having questions rather than item headings etc.
However, if you wanted to make only one change and asked me what that should be, it should be this: religiously set aside 15 minutes at the end of every meeting and expect everyone to answer the questions, “How can we do this better next time? How can we make the next meeting more productive?”
And don’t settle for any responses that are satisfied with the status quo! Remember, the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement!
Until next time, stay safe and well.