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Level with me — how many times have you sat in meetings knowing full well that it’s a waste of time. Is that monthly, weekly, daily, or hourly? Most of us in the ‘business world’ have experienced this at some point in our careers but few of us do anything about it.
During these gatherings you may rationalise that “this meeting must be of value because there are some great people here collaborating!”. The meeting churns on and you eventually catch yourself looking at your phone. You then remember how rude that is perceived to be, so put it away and attempt to engage with the group again. Sound familiar? Now if you were a Tesla employee, you would have recently received an email from Elon Musk stating you should:
Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time
Perhaps you don’t work at Tesla. Your colleagues could be offended if you just walk out. It might not look like you’re ‘towing the line’. It may even be career-limiting in some businesses. So what do you do? You smile, nod, add your ‘5 cents’ and plan your escape.
When you dig a little deeper you find an incredible amount of literature on the topic (which, by the way, has clearly not stopped the rot). The godfather of modern management, Peter Drucker, once said:
Meetings are a symptom of bad organisation. The fewer meetings the better
As the person who also coined the term ‘Knowledge Worker’, predicted developments like decentralisation, privatisation and the emergence of our information society, it’s fair to say he knows a thing for two about business. The reasons we’re dealing with the same issues over and over again, year after year, appears to be because we’re dealing with humans. Solace in solidarity.
It gets worse. This sentiment about meetings has been prevalent for many, many years. This article from Fast Company entitled ‘The Seven Sins of Deadly Meetings’ is from 1996. Over 20 years have passed since the article was published, and people back then were clearly having the exact same issues as we have today with ‘meetings’! If, as Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” then as a collective we’ve got some ground to cover.
Do you have the antidote?
Frankly, there is no silver bullet and no peddling of snake oil. However, if you can take one positive thing from this and use any of the below snippets of inspiration to make your work life that little bit more effective, and enjoyable, then that is considered a win.
Reframe to survive
The following tip is not only simple, it’s very effective. Products of Design’s Allan Chochinov penned a post entitled ‘Change Everything You Hate About Meetings with this ONE SINGLE WORD’. In fact, it was this post sent to me by one of my co-conspirators, Nassos Kappa, that tipped me over the edge to write this post. At its core, Allan’s argument is that:
We are never going to change meetings—as long as we call them “meetings”
To cut a long story short, Allan suggests to essentially reframe the essence of the intent, and thereby the outcome. The suggestion is to:
Change the word “meeting” to the word “review”
Simple. By doing so, all of a sudden the people attending must have something to show in order for it to be reviewed. Simple at its core. For the die hard fans of this idea, the article goes into depth about how to actually remove the word “meeting” all together from your digital realm, AKA your computer and phone will automatically replace the word “meeting” with “review”.
Call a spade a spade
In a similar vein to reframing the word “meeting” to inherently prompt action, another take on it is to merely say what the communication is actually for. A revelation! E.g. don’t call a “Coffee Catch-up” a “Meeting” if it’s literally a chat about nothing in particular while consuming caffeine. Swap “meeting” for <actual-reason-for-communicating>. Basically, just stop calling every conversation a meeting when it’s not.
If you can’t escape, optimise
Admittedly this is my least favourite option. However, we must understand that organisational change is more often than not a marathon, and not a sprint. This option might also be the only way to slowly influence your organisation (this is especially true If you’re attending more meetings than you’re setting up). Now look, there’s a plethora of books and articles online about “The top 32 meeting strategies for better meetings” (etc, etc), but of those here are a handful I’ve found effective over the years to get things done. You might also apply some of these tips so you your more appropriately named gatherings.
1. Front-load it
If it’s important—you’ll prepare for it. Provide the ‘why’, the context, purpose, target outcome, supporting materials, agenda, and things for people to prepare before the big day. If you’re going to have a “meeting” make it as helpful, efficient and effective as humanly possible. Ensure what you’re looking to achieve is possible within your allocated time frame. If not, enlarge the timeframe, reduce your scope, or set additional times. It’s not a good look if you only get half way through your agenda and have to then schedule another meeting. Speaking of time, think about the optimal time slot for the meeting. For example, mid-morning might be better than late afternoon depending on the amount of thinking that needs to be done. Bonus: If attendees leave with a sense of fulfilment they’re more likely to attend your next pow-wow.
2. Finesse your nest
If it’s a conference call and you’re the leader, be early. Ensure your tech is working before your big moment. What the lighting like? What’s your background? Are you smiling or looking at your phone and frowning when people join the call? Think of the vibe you’re emitting. The same rings true for physical meetings. Nothing quite says “I don’t really care” like a messy meeting room and an underprepared host. Have the agenda on the wall (or if it’s ‘death by powerpoint’ your first slide). Showing a sense of organisation and caring brings a sense of calm and focus to proceedings. This is your platform for winning. Take it seriously because it matters.
3. Inclusivity for the win
Providing an inclusive environment that promotes equality and participation is not only the right thing to do, it will also increase your chances of attendee satisfaction, engagement and progressive outcomes. In fact, it’s been shown that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time. Think broader than merely ‘giving everyone has a chance to talk’ or ‘one person at a time’ (both of which are valued concept), but also consider different learning and communication styles. Where possible, support complex concepts with visuals. Show a short video related to a metaphor you’re using. Provide a ‘car park’ (a blank document or wall space) for tougher issues you might not have the time or the people to solve right away.
4. Start with why
You’ve set the scene. Your attendees have arrived. Start with a) a smile, b) thank you, b) the why. What is the purpose of this. What is the end goal. Why have these specific people been assembled. Does everyone know each other? Once this recap, and introductions, have occurred (if you’ve done your front-loading!) you’re ready to progress the session.
5. Move with purpose
The energy in the room is as important as the task at hand. But as the famous Alfred Armand Montapert once said,
Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress
Channel the energy of the group towards your desired outcome. All energy spent should move you all towards the end goal of the session. Whenever you feel the conversation drifting, pull it back to the ‘why’ and the desired outcome. This is where the ‘car park’ for questions, ideas and general information works a treat. Take the point, and park it. As it’s written down, it can be addressed in the right way at the appropriate time. Keep on track. Move with purpose.
6. End it like you started
Wrapping up the session effectively is just as critical as setting yourself up for success in the first place. It’s critical you’ve allocated time at the end of the session to summarise the salient points which then leads nicely into the actions people will take away to move the endeavour forward. ‘Actions’ or tasks for people to undertake is natural, but what happens to those actions, and in what forum they’re shared, is also key. Do not immediately assume you need another gathering to achieve the goals of the project/endeavour. Be crystal clear on the next steps, document them, and share them with the group. This is key for the next point, which is ‘accountability’. It’s one thing to assign actions, have people do them, know how to share that information if required, but also what happens when things are not done to plan? There must be a level of accountability to next steps otherwise trust can be rapidly eroded.
In the end
The author concedes that the sentiment of “meetings” are important for most businesses to generate forward-motion, and gain consensus amongst other things. For many, this is how businesses encourage collaboration and knowledge share. That is understood, however, in order for us to stop wasting countless hours, days and years (not to mention generating additional stress) it’s of great importance that you reframe, rethink and re-energise how your business runs these sessions. Consider this from both an operational and human point of view if you wish to survive ‘the future of work’.
Finally, although Peter Drucker spoke of businesses and governments having a natural tendency to cling to “yesterday’s successes”, I do believe that bit-by-bit individuals within even the largest organisations can make small, meaningful, changes every day towards a more effective and enjoyable way of getting things done.
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