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Meetingitis

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Dear Dr. Yeahbut …

We have too many meetings.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to gripe about this, but if I’m not, why does it keep on happening? More important, what can I do about it? I need to do actual work, but easily half of every week goes into meetings. Help!

– Burnt

Dear Burnt …

Not all meetings are created equal, so there’s no one answer. In even numbers there are four types of meeting: Status, decision-making, information-sharing, and team working sessions. One at a time:

Status Meetings

These are weekly meetings of project team members and only project team members. Each team member reports on whether the tasks they were supposed to start started, the tasks they were supposed to finish actually finished, and, if not, what their plan is to get back on track.

Project status meetings are essential project-management tools. No, they aren’t an efficient way to collect task status information for the PM’s project status reports. They’re essential because they’re the most effective way to apply peer pressure to sub-par-performing team members.

If you’re on the invitation list for more than two weekly status meetings the problem isn’t that you have too many meetings. It’s that you’re assigned to too many projects. That’s an even harder problem to solve, but it’s a different problem.

Get out of meetings free card: You don’t get one. Project status meetings aren’t optional, even for team members who started and finished their tasks on time. These team members are, after all, the ones that exert the most and most effective peer pressure.

Decision-making meetings

There are, you might recall, five ways to make a decision: Authoritarian (I make it); Consultative (I collect informed opinions before making it); Consensus (we don’t all agree with the decision but do all agree to it); Democratic (we vote, the majority wins, and the minority pretends to accept it); and Delegated (someone else gets to make it).

Of these, the only decision style that calls for a meeting is consensus – the most expensive way to make decisions, delivering the second-lowest-quality results (voting is even worse). For most decisions, consultation strikes the best balance between quality and efficiency. Leaders should make it their go-to, reserving consensus for situations where stakeholder buy-in matters more than anything else.

Get out of meetings free card: If it’s your meeting, don’t have it. Consult or delegate the decision instead.

If you’re one of the invitees, politely decline the invitation and suggest a 15-minute one-on-one consultative call instead.

Information-sharing meetings

When managers were less buffeted by information, the conveners of information-sharing meetings asked, “Who needs to know about this?”

As most managers are buried in information, this quaint notion from days gone by has, or at least should have been supplanted by a different question: “Who can’t function effectively without this information?”

One more point about information-sharing meetings: Attendees are prone to try to turn them into decision-making meetings, on the grounds that “Why are you telling me this if you don’t want my opinion about it?”

Get out of meetings free card: If you’re the convener, ask yourself what it is about this information that requires a meeting and not just an internal blog post with a comments section for any back-and-forth that’s called for.

If you’re on the invitation list, ask if you won’t end up just as well informed by reading the meeting notes.

Team working sessions

Well, if the team really is getting work done then this counts as time you’re spending getting work done.

Get out of meetings free card: Even when teams met in 3D in a whiteboard-equipped room, working sessions should have been limited to seven participants. Limit web-conferenced meetings to five. If you’re the convener, adhere to these limits. If you’re invited and don’t need to add your voice to the proceedings, brief another participant … one you trust … with your perspective, and let the convener know you’ll accept the results.

Bob’s last word: Layered on top of this brief meeting taxonomy is a meta-purpose, which is that meetings are where team members get to know each other, building trust and shared purpose as they do.

Getting work done is transactional. It’s what can be tracked, and what pays the bills.

But relationships do matter. Leaders who ignore them find the teams they lead gradually enter a long, slow slide into dysfunction.

So along with discontinuing meetings that shouldn’t ever be scheduled, wise leaders find ways to replace their relationship-management meta-purpose.

Comments (3)

  • As I was reading this excellent piece, I was also mentally composing a comment, that would have started ‘Yeah, but…’ and then I read the last section and realized, as usual, you hadn’t overlooked a critical piece: “Layered on top of this brief meeting taxonomy is a meta-purpose, which is that meetings are where team members get to know each other, building trust and shared purpose as they do.”

    Reply
  • HI Bob,
    Usually when people talk about “I have too many meetings.” They’re talking about either information-sharing meetings or poorly organized/lead meetings. Lets unpack you’re Get out of meetings free card thought “what it is about this information that requires a meeting and not just an internal blog post with a comments section for any back-and-forth” and “won’t [we] end up just as well informed by reading the meeting notes.” In days of old when the two choices for sharing information were a memo or a meeting, meetings were an efficient tool. Then came mimeograph and photocopy making the memo more efficient but lacking in speed and only a one way channel. Using newly available tools like eMail, text messaging, and threaded blog posts. Leaders can get the interaction of the meeting with the record of the memo and allow the freedom from locking large groups of people into the necessity of synchronizing same point in time to communicate. Think of it as distance learning for companies.

    Reply

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