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You wouldn’t meet about it

Call someone during the day and there’s every chance you will be told they are in a meeting. Look around at work and almost certainly someone, a pile of papers under-arm, will be breathlessly rushing to their next meeting.

" A weekly scheduled 90-minute meeting of mid-level managers cost more than $US15 million annually."
Leo D’Angelo Fisher, Freelance journalist

In simpler times an empty desk meant the owner was probably having a coffee downstairs; now the much safer bet is they are nodding earnestly – or nodding off – at yet another useless meeting.

Regardless of how many learned management articles decry the 'meetings culture' as a drain on productivity, the meeting not only remains a staple of corporate life but is becoming even more pervasive.

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This guy loves meetings. Source: Shutterstock

Research by Bain & Co in the United States found senior executives spend at least two days a week in meetings and 15 per cent of an organisation’s collective time is spent in meetings.

The business adage 'time is money' is especially true when it comes to meetings. In one case Bain helped a major manufacturing client crunch the numbers and found a weekly scheduled 90-minute meeting of mid-level managers cost more than $US15 million annually. Fifteen. Million.

THIRTY ONE HOURS

Australian productivity software developer Atlassian, in a report for the US market, estimates most employees will spend 31 unproductive hours in meetings each month. Almost half (47 per cent) of meeting participants consider meetings to be the number-one time waster at work.

So how to explain all these meetings despite their corrosive impact? Perhaps it’s a misplaced faith in meetings as a form of staff engagement and inclusion; a faux democratic ideal that 'values' the input of employees in corporate decision-making? Except decisions are generally not made but merely deferred to yet another meeting. Or resolutions are so indecisive, porous or otherwise doomed to inaction that one might reflect 'never was so little decided by so many'.

Meetings are a fail-safe cover for management inaction. When too lazy, too weak or too 'collaborative' to make a decision – call a meeting. Deciding to hold a meeting may feel like a decision but too many meetings are black holes into which unmade decisions disappear without a trace.

No matter how pointless, meetings always pull a full house. Some are there because they have to be but there is always a band of eager participants who define their self-worth by the number of meetings they attend: they are meeting tragics.

Every meeting has its set characters: the meeting hog who has something to say about everything; the grandstander intent on dominating proceedings; the parrot who earnestly repeats something which has already been said; the Edward de Bono acolyte who insists on figuratively donning one of the six coloured hats – 'speaking with my red hat on' – before every inane utterance; the jargonista itching for a chance to show off the latest management babble; and the office bore who always brings up the matter of unwashed coffee cups.

Then there’s the chairman. The good one has an agenda, defines outcomes, keeps things on track and finishes up with things achieved or at least clearly defined tasks.

IN FREEFALL

But too many, having invited more people than necessary to the meeting, allow everyone a say, no matter how tedious, irrelevant or interminable. Often a meeting in freefall will only be brought to a merciful close by the next meeting waiting impatiently at the door. Unfortunately, the chilling words uttered by the flustered chairman as papers are noisily collected will usually be: “We’ll pick up from where we left off at the next meeting.”

Employees spend so much time at meetings that it is now considered essential to feed participants lest they fade under the intense pressure of successive talk-fests. And so it’s sandwiches for lunch meetings and muffins at all other times.

For the delicate of stomach it is hellish to be surrounded by famished meeting-tragics earnestly droning on as they chomp away at generously filled sandwiches. Quite apart from the horror of observing others masticating foodstuffs while discussing the intricacies of Agenda Item 4(iii), it’s difficult to take seriously colleagues who spend the rest of the meeting sporting multi-grain smiles. Or blueberries in their beards.

IF WE MUST ACCEPT MEETINGS AS A FACT OF CORPORATE LIFE, HERE ARE SOME STEPS TO ENSURE THAT YOUR MEETINGS ARE WORTH HAVING.

“This is why we are here today.” A meeting should have clarity of purpose and clear objectives. Before proceedings commence the chairman should outline what he or she expects to be achieved. The agenda – there should always be an agenda – should be uncluttered, carrying only as many items as will likely be resolved or dealt with satisfactorily within the allotted time. Distribute the agenda the day before so everyone comes prepared and ready to contribute.

“This is what we decided today.” A meeting should conclude with clear outcomes. These should be summarised by the chairman, including who has been tasked with what assignments. Steve Jobs used to place a 'DRI' – directly responsible individual – next to each agenda item. It is not unreasonable for the chairman, during or after the meeting, to enquire of the DRI: “How are you going to go about this?” and to follow the task’s progress. Items on the agenda not dealt with need not take another meeting to resolve. See the relevant people after the meeting and make whatever decisions are necessary.

“Who needs to be here?” Meetings with too many people can bog down in unnecessary discussion, point scoring, confusion and blurred lines of responsibility. It not 'collaboration' or 'inclusiveness' to fill a meeting with people who have little or no reason to be there. Somebody who needs to be informed of decisions made, but who is not instrumental in that decision, can be briefed outside the meeting. The people who need to be present at a meeting are the decision-makers, those whose input will help inform those decisions, and those who will implement the decisions.

A little more conversation…outside meetings. Some managers feel they need meetings to make decisions, set tasks and communicate with staff. The meeting is a management adjunct; it does not take the place of management, including conversations with staff. Relying on meetings as the primary conduit between management and staff is a trap.

You call the meetings; they don’t call you. Only call a meeting when it’s needed, rather than being beholden to a daily or weekly meeting. Don’t have open-ended meetings. Have a time limit. And if a meeting can be wrapped up in less than the allotted time, don’t feel obliged to fill up the hour. The best one-hour meeting is one that lasts 30 minutes.

Now here’s a role model: Carlos Ghosn, the French-Lebanese-Brazilian who as head of Renault took on the joint role of running then troubled Japanese car market Nissan, faced not just a massive business and cultural challenge but a practical one.

How do you run a meeting with French and Japanese stakeholders? His answer? Hold them in English, no one’s native language. One result was the meetings were short and efficient because no one knew how to waffle and weasel in a second language.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at leodangelofisher.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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