Update on September 10, 2015: I just produced my first live broadcast on Periscope, summarizing the ideas in this post. Here’s the 10-minute video recording of that broadcast, which includes a brief overview of the five reasons I believe we experience so many bad meetings:
There are over 11 million corporate meetings a day in the United States alone. 11 million! Yet, as I am fond of saying, I have yet to meet anyone who is dying for their next meeting to start.
Yet most people who work in offices today spend most of their time in meetings of one kind or another. Maybe it’s a two-person conversation, and maybe it’s a group meeting with six or more participants. As Alan Webber pointed out over 20 years ago (“What’s So New About the New Economy?” Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 1993), conversation is at the heart of knowledge-based work. It’s how we learn, exchange information, solve problems, test our ideas, create new knowledge, and connect with our colleagues and customers.
So why do so many meetings turn out so badly? I believe there are at least five factors affecting the quality of our meeting experiences:
We are already swimming in a sea of information. Meetings have served traditionally as an efficient means of sharing consistent information with a group of people who “need to know.” A team leader calls everyone into a conference room to report news to the group or to ask the participants to share project updates.
Yet digital technology today provides most of that kind of information more quickly and more accurately, and in formats that can be fine-tuned to individual needs. Whether it’s email, Twitter, Jabber, instant messaging, or project status websites, everyone who needs to know what’s going on can get updates while sitting at their workstations, or on mobile devices no matter where they are physically.
Stopping everything else to sit in a closed conference room for an hour or more just doesn’t make the same kind of sense it used to.
It’s too easy to call meetings – and there is little accountability for results. It’s just too easy for a team or department leader to schedule a meeting. And hardly anyone publishes a formal agenda or a statement of desired outcomes in advance of a meeting.
And I can’t recall ever hearing a meeting leader identify the corporate cost of a meeting (not just the meeting room and refreshments, but the combined salary cost of all the participants; Rick Gilbert, author of Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations, estimates that a one-hour meeting of C-Suite executives can cost more than $35,000!). Too often a meeting is simply the default approach no matter what the need is.
Many meeting leaders don’t define their purpose or the desired process clearly. There are many different reasons for calling a meeting; and the appropriate conversation process varies dramatically depending on the meeting’s purpose and desired outcomes. An informational meeting should unfold very differently from a decision-making meeting, which in turn is very different from a creative brainstorming meeting. Yet all too often participants arrive at the meeting without any sense of the agenda, the process, or the intended outcomes.
See “What’s This Meeting For, Anyway?” for a more extended exploration of how a meeting’s purpose impacts its process and outcomes.
Most organizational cultures discourage candid conversation. When meetings are fun and engaging the participants are open, exploring ideas, listening actively to each other, and learning new and meaningful ideas. But in many organizations today the dominant behavioral norms discourage even mild disagreements.
One of the biggest enemies of meaningful meetings is the tendency towards “Groupthink” and an unwillingness to engage in active discourse. Challenging someone’s idea, or offering alternative approaches, means taking responsibility for conflict and change, and that can be stressful.
Most of us are not effective listeners and learners. The high levels of stress and overwork that affect so many of us these days makes it genuinely difficult to hear ideas or arguments that run counter to our own experience and preferences. New ideas, or ideas that might complicate our own work, are hard to absorb. So we tend to shut them out, or at least dismiss them as not important or not doable.
The next time you call a meeting, or are invited to one, prepare by thinking through these four critical ingredients:
I can almost guarantee that your meeting will be more memorable, more meaningful, and more engaging when you plan the meeting in advance, and then stick to your plan.
Contact me for a free one-hour consultation about how you can design and lead corporate conversations that engage your team and enhance organizational outcomes.