Meetings. Oh, meetings!

Ok, so everyday starts with a quick look at the agenda for the day. How many meetings? But most important, how many of them will actually lead to some substance?

The more time passes the more I am becoming averse to meetings. Could be that I am developing an anti-social trait. But, considering that on different occasions I love being surrounded by people, I think it’s more the case that I am becoming less patient with time wasting. Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older.

Let’s face it: many meetings are just a nuisance. A waste of time. And usually the level of timewasting is directly proportional to the number of people sitting on the meeting. The bigger the meeting the less chance of getting anywhere by the end of it.

Nowadays, if I have to have meetings I prefer them to be short and with a small number of people. Before the meeting we set an agenda with outcomes, usually not more than three, and stick religously to that. A good meeting shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes.

This was a lesson I learnt earlier on from editorial meetings. My first editorial meetings at the newspaper used to be quite long. There would be discussion about the past issue, generation of ideas for the next one, things to be improved at the office, so on and so forth. The problem was that these meetings lasted a whole morning. Initially a lot was coming out of them; people were enthusiastic, there was a lot going on, many changes in the air, and everyone seemed to have something to say. With time, when things got more settled and the editorial meeting became routine, people started having less things to say, yet the meeting still lasted a whole morning. Why? Very simple: the discussion wasn’t focused anymore. Yes, there was still a lot said, but less substance was coming out of it. And one could notice, that the editorial meeting had become a dragging affair that didn’t elicit enthusiasm anymore.

Then someone opened my eyes, an elder colleague, one of my staff. He said, ‘What’s the point of having a meeting if we are not sure what we are meeting for?’ Now that made me think. My approach was wrong in so many ways. First: I was calling a regular meeting the outcomes of which were very generic. Secondly: such a broad approach meant that it wasn’t clear to the participants how they were expected to prepare themselves for it. Thirdly: because of this broad approach we spent a lot of time going around things, deviating to other issues, and keeping ourselves from coming to important decisions. Fourthly: whenever we decided something, it wasn’t clear who had ownership and who was to follow up.

In light of this, the ‘reformed’ editorial meetings were considerably shorter. There was an agenda, to which everyone would contribute an item (if they so wished) and then from that agenda the top three priorities would be discussed. Every item on the agenda had an objective from which a task would emerge, which would be clearly owned and properly followed up. If there were other items that needed to be discussed then another meeting was set using the same method. Over the years, whenever possible, I tried to stick to this method which I have found efficient and effective.

I also learned to shun ‘big’ meetings. More often then not they end up mere talking shops. And the talking ends up highjacked by the usual suspects. It either ends up as a collage of what at best will be mildly entertaining anecdotes or else nitpicking minutae that seldom interest most of the participants. During ‘big’ meetings it is notoriously difficult to pin ownership – usually the most vocal elements tend to be also the least ready to commit – and since too many interests are sitting round the table, it is exceedingly difficult to come to conclusions. I have seen it happen all too often that one big meeting ends up adjurned so that another big meeting follows that will eventually lead to yet another and not a single objective or conclusion is reached.

One might argue that these big meetings are sometimes a necessity. True, sometimes. But I have a strong feeling that many of these big meetings are the result of a misinterpretation of what stakeholder involvement means. If you need to bring many players round a table, by all means do so, but then make sure that there is an agenda and the discussion is solidly structured. I would prefer to hold an initial short big meeting to inform the participants of the objectives and set the tasks ahead and then pursue more intimate meetings with clusters of them. Though it may look like a longer process in reality it is more effective and yields better results. It also ensures more participation. I have often seen ‘big’ meetings leading nowhere, highjacked by a small number of people, with the majority being sidelined. It defeats the purpose of holding a ‘big’ meeting in the first place. What’s the use of having a multitude of participants if the majority are simply silent observers?

Being very selective about meetings saves a lot of time, time that can be better dedicated to other more important matters – but about those in another post.

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