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In defense of meetings

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Sometimes, analyzing a clever quote tells you what’s wrong with the idea it’s supposed to convince you of.

Want an example? H. Ross Perot, in whose company I once worked, said, “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

Clever, isn’t it? Persuasive regarding having a bias toward action, right?

Only … a lotta snakes eat a lotta vermin. Want less vermin? Cultivate environments that attract snakes.

Which isn’t to take anything away from Mr. Perot. He was a man of impeccable integrity, intense loyalty to his employees, and was possibly the best salesman in the history of the world.

And he had a fondness for catchy phrases, but not this one, from Voltaire: “A witty saying proves nothing.”

None of which has all that much to do with this week’s topic – the unfair reputation associated with the habitat in which committees live and breathe – the dreaded meeting.

Do some googling and you’ll find any number of write-ups that excoriate meetings as utter wastes of time and energy. You’ll also find screeds that explain how to make meetings more effective.

Rarest (excuse me while I pat myself on the back) are epistles that present a balanced view of when meetings are necessary and important vs when they’re wastes of time and energy.

When it comes to meetings, two problems emerge from the detritus. The first is that many meetings are poorly organized and facilitated. Attend enough poorly organized and facilitated meetings and you’ll be forgiven for failing to recognize that this is just another instance of Sturgeon’s Law: If 90% of everything is crap, 90% of meetings will be likewise, concluding that all meetings are wastes of time and energy and not that all badly run meetings are wastes of time and energy.

But then there’s the second problem: In many cases, a meeting is simply the wrong tool for the job, akin to using a driver to get out of a sand trap.

When the situation doesn’t call for a meeting, running the meeting more effectively just isn’t going to help anyone accomplish anything useful.

When do you need a meeting? Briefly, you need one when:

You need a group of people to reach a consensus – not a faux consensus but a real one, when everyone might not agree with a course of action but they all agree to it. Organizational dynamics being what they are, consensus by email chain simply isn’t reliable.

Often, though, the attempt to reach consensus is nothing more than an unwillingness to own a decision.

The unnecessary meeting is a symptom of organizational dysfunction, not a cause.

You’re running a project – not for the project’s day-to-day work, although there are times when different people each have a piece to a project puzzle but nobody has all of the pieces, so they need to meet to … well … puzzle it out.

But a necessity in all projects is the (usually weekly) project status meeting, in which each project team member reports their status to the team as a whole – whether the tasks that were supposed to start actually start, and those that were supposed to finish in fact finish.

These need to be meetings because the point isn’t to understand the project’s status. It’s to apply peer pressure to underperforming team members.

Bob’s last word: These are the guidelines for calling a meeting. Businesses that adhere to them will generally waste less time in pointless energy sinks than businesses that don’t.

But it doesn’t help you when you’re on the receiving end of the invitation.

What can? Recognize that in most cases you were invited as a courtesy. The convener figured the meeting is about a topic you have a stake in, and so you should have the opportunity to know what’s going on.

Getting out of these courtesy meetings is surprisingly easy. Just email the convener and ask, “Am I necessary for this meeting?”

More often than not the convener will happily email you the meeting’s presentation PowerPoint and breathe a sigh of relief.

Now appearing in CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:Brilliance: The CIO’s most seductive career-limiting trait.” You probably know this already, but it’s worth the reminder that for the most part, any executive isn’t supposed to have all the great ideas. Executives, and that includes the CIO, are supposed to be information brokers, finding and promoting the ideas that matter most.

Comments (6)

  • I strongly urge anyone who runs meetings to join a Toastmasters chapter.

    We all know that Toastmasters is about public speaking. But it is also about setting, and sticking to a meeting agenda. Someone is specifically tasked with critiquing how well emcee ran the meeting. All in a safe and supportive environment.

    Two important things i learned from a boss who ran great meetings.

    1. Assign someone to take minutes (notes). Rotate the duty. Not good at it? Learn by doing.

    2. When the inevitable side topics pop up, if they can not be addressed in a couple of sentences, the person who brought up the side topic gets assigned to schedule a meeting with the boss, and others specific to the issue.

    Everyone knew this. Thus we only brought up one-offs if it really was important.

  • You can also use a meeting as an opportunity to bounce ideas off multiple people. Done properly, this often synthesizes a new concept out of the combined contributions. It’s then up to the meeting organizer to run with the idea to make it a reality.

  • Might it be the best use of a meeting is to have structured dialog to identify the meritocratic solution. The solution which creates the most value for the stakeholders.

    I’m not a fan on “consensus.” I find it to be a dumbed down, bargained for, lowest common denominator solution.

    • I think that, regarding consensus decision-making, you aren’t looking at the whole picture. I covered this ground way, way back (1996) and explore it in depth in Leading IT.

      Very briefly: Reserve consensus decision-making for very special situations. Consensus decisions are expensive and time-consuming. Use consensus processes when (a) you need everyone involved to own the decision; or (b) you’re leading your peers to a decision nobody has the authority to make.

  • I’ve discovered that the most dysfunctional companies also have the most dysfunctional meetings—and the worst places I have ever worked. Those that used “get the agenda and then the minutes out as soon as possible” were wonderful. I could skip the meeting but send any relevant information to the organizer.

    I learned the techniques in “Meetings, Blood Meetings” back in the 1980s and used them in every meeting since then. As John Cleese said, ““People learn nothing when they’re asleep and very little when they’re bored.”

  • Excellent piece, and recognition that lots of good stuff can happen in meetings.
    I’d add another reason for a meeting: sharing information that is too sensitive or nuanced to be sent in an email. e.g., Having a meeting with managers re: upcoming layoffs is much more effective than trying to cover the topic in an email (which also could get out in the wild)

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