Meetings: The New Dysfunctional Company Picnic

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There’s been a lot of talk about meetings lately. And a lot of push back.

Not so much about the fact that they exist (well, yes, people are hating on that), but “how” they exist. Because all too often they are sources of dysfunction, rather than progress.

Enter Al Pittampalli and his new book “Read This Before Our Next Meeting,” which seeks to change the way meetings happen (or stop happening) in a effort to return a bit of sanity to the process of progress.

With permission, I’m excited to be able to share this excerpt.

Enjoy!

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Traditional Meetings Kill Our Sense of Urgency

Or as John Kotter says, our compulsive determination to move and win, now.

When did we lose our fire? When did we get so comfortable? I used to come into work with a promise to myself, a commitment to do work that matters. But having been unsuccessful in fulfilling that promise in the short windows between meetings, I now come into work with the hope of surviving the day.

I wonder when we’ll realize what a trap we’ve set for ourselves. Regularly interrupting the day to bring our best minds together to focus on the urgent makes it impossible for these people to spend their focused energy on what’s actually important. We have created a culture designed to survive the urgent by watering it down, instead of challenging our best to step up and lead us to do the important.

Peter Drucker tells us that meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. We either meet or work. We can’t do both at the same time. Real work is what moves us forward. Work that involves action, struggle, and effort. It’s that output that puts us closer to winning. If the mission could speak, it would constantly tell us, “get back to work.”

The most talented among us know that they best serve the organization by making things. We add value only by producing work that contributes directly toward our goals and by initiating amazing work that wasn’t even asked of us. Instead, we’re pulled into meetings.

David Heinemer Hansson, from 37 Signals, says meetings are toxic because they break workdays into a series of work moments. Achieving flow, the state in which we do our best work, can take long periods of focus. Interruptions force us to start over each time.

I’m tired of starting over.

Efficient systems should be organized around the output that wants to be optimized: in our case, the work. But with so many meetings called, it’s as if our work is organized around our meetings instead.

Sometimes, when I’m called into a meeting, I wonder what could possibly be so urgent that it pulls me away from my real work. As with the yellow “BREAKING NEWS” banner that appears on CNN every time I turn it on, I’m skeptical. And after the meeting is over and I’m forced to confront the truth that no, there was no real urgency, I’m disappointed, angry. I feel betrayed.

This false urgency is echoed in three common meeting types:

  1. Convenience meetings
  2. Formality meetings
  3. Social meetings

Convenience meetings: Meetings called because it’s difficult to capture everything we want to say effectively in writing, quickly. These meetings rarely add any more value than a memo would have. In fact, they’re worse because in addition to wasting time, they rely on nonverbal communication that’s hard to refer to later on.

Formality meetings: Meetings called by managers who think it’s their job to hold them. It doesn’t matter whether these meetings are designed to give off the appearance of control and productivity, or whether they’re a way for managers to subtly exert their status; in either case, these meetings are wasteful. Even if having convening members get together to share advice or status reports results in some incremental benefit, it pales in comparison to the cost of the interruption.

Social meetings: Meetings for the purpose of connection. We sometimes call social meetings without even realizing it. I’m guilty of this myself. Unfortunately, social meetings quickly turn circular and expand to fit the time. You might want to slow down and chat, but perhaps not everyone in the room has the same goals (or time) that you do.

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So, curious, how do YOU feel about meetings?

Do you agree with Al’s assessment?

 

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18 responses

18 responses to “Meetings: The New Dysfunctional Company Picnic”

  1. I definitely hear what Al is saying. Meetings can indeed be a colossal bore and an egregious waste of valuable company, employee, and employer time.

    On the other hand, a meeting in and of itself is like money or electricity, basically neutral in nature. Things of value can and have been accomplished during meetings and there are times when meetings, at least briefings, are essential in order to refocus efforts and direction.

    I think the most important thing is to get out of the all too common mindless habit of having a meeting for the sake of having a meeting, or for the sake of imbuing a sense of importance into an otherwise lackluster, slow news day at the office.

    Excellent work, Al! Thanks, Jonathan!

    Peter

  2. K00kyKelly says:

    The meetings that irritate me the most are the ones that happen week after week with no progress made. No meeting notes are taken and as people come and go from the attendance list the entire meeting from last time is re-hashed to get everyone up to speed. You could call it the time warp meeting or maybe deja vu meetings.

  3. I love this statement: David Heinemer Hansson, from 37 Signals, says meetings are toxic because they break workdays into a series of work moments. Achieving flow, the state in which we do our best work, can take long periods of focus. Interruptions force us to start over each time.

    I think social meetings are the way to go – a time to bond and share ideas….I personally am not into meetings and never have been – a HUGE waste of working time…

    In gratitude to this post,
    Nancy

  4. Andrea says:

    As a project manager, weekly status meetings are the bane of my existence. Everyone involved would like them to go away. However, getting everyone in the room has proven to be the only way to get the exchange of information we need to move forward. I can post updates and send out reports until my fingers bleed. But when they go unread, they aren’t doing anyone any good. Too often the person who doesn’t see a need to be involved is exactly the person with a critical piece of information no one else is aware of. Without group discussion, important issues get overlooked.

    • Gina says:

      I hear that, and as a pm myself I’m tied to the tyranny of DAILY status meetings — two of them I run myself (that I experimented in cutting down to 30 min and making that be enough time).

      And then other status mtgs to status on the status I’ve gathered. And other mtgs to handle things to big to handle in status mtgs. And….well more mtgs. We’ve managed to institute mtgs to formalize what we plan to report in status mtgs. It’s insane and nobody seems to be able to get off the mtg wagon train.

      My fav bit — people who just stumble from mtg to mtg, multitasking the whole way, and mumbling “could you repeat that” when you yell out their name to take status. Then you have to repeat a bunch of stuff.

      It’s insane and I want out.

  5. Marguerite says:

    Definitely agree with this…and I feel the same about most “training sessions”. I abhorred some of the silly meetings I would get dragged into. They were a waste of time, energy, the entire day, and just made me angry. There were only a couple held by one of my managers that always seemed to be focused, driven, and actually pretty motivating. He gave them sparingly – probably because he hated meetings, too.

    Now that I’ve been pretty much forced to work for myself, I find that I can get so much more done because I’m not always getting dragged into meetings. Almost all of my work is done online, and if I feel the absolute need to “meet with” any of my fellow artisans, I know who is online when and the best way of contacting them.

    I’ve noticed some sizable companies offering more positions available to people who want to telecommute – including the one I used to work for. Is this a possible sign of end of times for so many frivolous meetings?

  6. Helen says:

    I think meetings can be a benefit if only you have a clear objective for the outcome of the meeting. If you are not sure why you are there and don’t find out in the first couple of minutes then it’s probably a waste of time.

  7. Thanks for sharing this Jonathan!

    I read somewhere about a company that declared “No meeting weeks” once a month, and no Thursday meetings ever. Also their general rule was no more then one meeting per day on the allowable days. If you were asked to join two meetings you were had to choose and your manager was supposed to back your decision.

    Wish I could remember who it was, my bet is they produced a lot of work!

  8. Janet says:

    Have you tried having your meetings standing up? Clear objectives, share information then back to work. Standing kind of sets a tone.

  9. Al’s book is available for free for one week on the Kindle through Seth Godin’s domino project. I recommend getting a copy – its a must read for anyone who attends meetings, and particularly those with the authority to change how meetings work.

  10. david marx says:

    It’s difficult to form an overall opinion without having read the full story. The excerpt as it stands hints that all meetings are bad. In my world of running projects, face-time with the team is invaluable and it ensures alignment of stakeholders on a different level to written communications such as memos, eMails and the like. One could argue that one doesn’t need formal meetings to ensure face-time, but with multi-disciplinary teams I find that this formal meet is a must. But, with clearly defined objectives [agenda]!

    I do agree in general though – no compelling reason and clear agenda – I often decline those invites.

  11. Giovanna says:

    I think that they are worst in the corporation world… When I worked at IBM I felted it bad…
    But now working with creative people, sometime we just need one to put things on track… Of course it´s once in a while and not twice a day

  12. Srinivas Rao says:

    I’m always amazed at how much time gets wasted in meetings. For a few months now I’ve actually worked abroad and remotely for the company I work with. When you are not actually there it becomes really apparent just how much time is wasted with meetings. I sat in a meeting that went for an hour and a half, while the marketing team discussed the air conditioner bill and the office move for over 30 mins. None of these things added any value to the discussion. I honestly think meeting for the sake of meeting is absolutely ridiculous, yet companies all over do this. While I think there’s certain value to be gained from meeting in person, I think people need to cut to the chase and stick to an agenda.

  13. Most organizational meetings that I participated in didn’t energize me. I guess evaluating what a meeting does to your energy level is a good criterium to test whether a meeting adds value or not.

    I definitely see the categories that Al defines. I’ve actually written a post where I identified similar reasons why people want to meet. For most of the reasons a meeting is called, better alternatives exist.

    I agree that meetings are needed for creative teams to focus and align activities with the project vision. This can work well, like for example the stand-up meetings that software development teams have. But, these meetings are very specific, have an agenda that is to the point and action-oriented. Most corporate meetings are nothing like that.

    That is why I like ‘Meetings are toxic’ from REWORK. It accurately describes my experience with meetings. It also inspired me to create a mindmap ‘Why Meetings Suck and What To Do About It’ (http://rolandwijnen.com/blog/why-meetings-suck-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/). I’m hoping it supports people to stop having meetings that drain their energy, so that they can do more great work.

  14. I read the book over the weekend. I now have the hard copy and the ebook (which was free). Another stunning edition to the Domino Project stable (I have every one).

    Al, I can say is it opened my eyes. A new dawn must emerge if we are to break free from the mediocrity of meetings. They suck your soul, and every time I go to one where nothing gets achieved, it feels like a bit of me dies.

    Well done Al.

    And now to spread the word amongst the legal community which is where I congregate.

    ~ JS ~

  15. Jodi Kaplan says:

    My dad used to run a software company (cloud computing, essentially, but with dedicated phone lines). I helped out as a kid and I remember one day he, and his senior staff, were in a meeting (some sort of pitch from a vendor) for at least 4 or 5 hours.

    After about two hours, one of the VPs came out and said it was a waste, and he knew it after an hour.

    I thought, “Then why are you still in there?”

    Until that point, I figured meetings must be fascinating since they stayed in there so long!

  16. Hmmm. I’ve been to a lot of meetings that were in the three categories but as an occupational therapist who has met about a client’s welfare and program and as project developer assembling projects, deliverables, and ideas I’ve been in some incredibly creative meetings.

    You can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

    To me the key is having astute leadership, clear goals and process, and meaningful outcomes. Even no-meeting work time is useless if you don’t have these!

  17. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Meetings are used terribly almost everywhere.

    I agree with Peter though: meetings don’t have to be terrible, that’s just how they’re used. Yes, some things may benefit from a meeting. So respect your (and others’) time and don’t schedule it in the middle of the day. Schedule at the beginning or end (but not too late please, I want to go home) of the day. If possible, schedule on Monday or Friday so you’re not interrupting the week. Have clear goals. Have a notetaker. Stick to a specific length. Have a day where no meetings (even social ones) are allowed, as we do at UserVoice.

    We all know this can be better, so let’s make it happen!