The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Articles Promising Better Meetings
In the past week I’ve come across three articles purporting to a) tell you what’s wrong with meetings and b) offer cure-all fixes, including one in the Wall Street Journal (may be behind a paywall). The Journal in particular should know better — not because the Journal is a flawless font of wisdom, but because it’s pitched at business leaders and business-leader wannabes. I’ll point out why this matters in a minute.
All three articles are missing two critical (and hidden) factors that have a lot to say about whether meetings are successful. The suggestions they offer are (mostly) good ones, with those from the Journal better than most — though the Journal article also contains an anecdote that gets it backwards. Good suggestions used inappropriately, however, will cause damage as well as address issues.
Meeting Secret #1: Each Type of Meeting Has Different Rules
The articles address meetings with a one-size-fits-all approach that’s about as useful as one-size-fits-all T-shirts.
There are four basic types of meetings. Consider this two-by-two matrix:
You can think of meetings in terms of how many people are involved — committed, really, in the pigs-and-chickens sense1 — in the item under discussion. You can also think of them in terms of purpose: to inform or to discuss.
“Strategy” meetings (or items within a larger meeting) involve all or most of the people in the room and center on open discussion. They’re extremely valuable (and do not require that the players have equal throw weight or offer equal-level input; see below). You can’t run a strategy meeting by fiat. Employing a detailed agendas may range from somewhat valuable to counterproductive, depending on how well the players interact. You do need to find ways to gather input from those who may be reticent while keeping the ramblers from sidetracking the session. That said, some folks are reticent because they have nothing to add or because their point has been made by others; it’s not just shyness, type-A’s overpowering them, or cultural differences, though all of those may also be in play. Likewise, some very smart people do their best thinking out loud, which be-brilliant-be-brief-be-gone types may see as rambling. As I said, one size doesn’t fit all.
Don’t let the term “strategy” bias you. A budget discussion where everyone is trying to nail their own budget down for next year is also a strategy-type meeting.
Jumping to the opposite corner, “status” meetings involve only a few people (at one time), usually in the form of one person informing the meeting head about something. On a team that works together regularly, the other attendees may derive value from hearing (brief) status info, but these kinds of meetings can get deadly if the reports go on too long — but again, see Secret #2.
“Report” meetings, like status meetings, are informative rather than open discussions. The most common form is the leader sharing information with the team — e.g., from a client or from her own boss. However, often a team member has been asked to research something of interest to the larger group and then reports out to the group. These are useful ways to share information as long as there is opportunity to question the reporters. Otherwise, put it in email or a memo (though note that a leader pressed for time might deliver it verbally and consider it a better use of the the total time, as described below).
That leaves “dilemma” meetings, which should be left. Left out. Left behind. There is little less valuable in a meeting than two people discussing a point that doesn’t involve or even interest the others in the meeting. If you find yourself leading this kind of a meeting, consider moving the discussion to a one-on-one conversation.
Meeting Secret #2: Not Every Attendee Is Equal
I remember a three-hour meeting at Microsoft some years ago where a bunch of us presented ideas on a particular topic to Bill Gates and the other top Microsoft execs. It was supposed to be a two-hour meeting. It started a good 15 minutes late. It went on almost an hour past the scheduled end time. I presented and discussed with Bill et al. a ten-minute item. The other 2+ hours of discussion were on aspects of the topic that didn’t directly concern me, that had no bearing on the job I held at the time.2 Miserable meeting with lots of wasted time, right? (Classify it as sequential dilemma meetings.)
No. For two reasons.
First, as I suggest in the footnote, I think all of us — there were about 30 of us in the room, half participants and half people with backup material3 — were interested in the overall implications of the topic under discussion, a multi-billion-dollar-a-year issue. Second, most of Microsoft’s senior leaders at the time were in the room (my recollection is that Steve Ballmer was traveling but that all of the rest of the “names you’d recognize” were there). In theory, Bill et al. could have scheduled individual meetings with each of us. Of course, that would have been a logistical nightmare and hugely inefficient for him and the other leaders. So we all attended a single meeting, because that took less of a toll on the people whose time was the most valuable.4
And that’s the other dirty meeting secret. Let’s assume the leader’s time is worth $10,000/hour to the organization and the various attendees are worth $2,000/hour. If the leader gets full value from the meeting and each of the five other attendees wastes 3/4 of their time waiting for their part of the agenda, the meeting is still successful. (Might some better scheduling raise the overall value even higher? Yes, but consider also how hard it can be to schedule a senior leader’s time.)
When you plan a meeting, start with what the leader (a/k/a the most expensive person in the room) needs to accomplish. Good leaders try to work the logistics to minimize the waste of anyone’s time, but they also recognize that if there’s going to be waste, don’t waste the most expensive time.
And there’s almost always waste in a multi-topic meeting.
Teaching Better Meetings
As part of some of my classes, I teach a brief section on reducing meeting waste. I don’t necessarily get into the arcana I’ve brought up here, but I do incorporate the lessons into what I’m sharing with the attendees.
It’s not one-size-fits-all. You don’t always need an agenda (e.g., for a one-topic brainstorming/strategy meeting, the meeting title is the agenda). You can be neither draconian nor random in how you manage your meetings.
There is a perception that the business world wastes a lot of time in meetings. My experience suggests:
- We don’t waste as much time as we think.
- We can do a lot better anyway.
- We allow people who grouse about meetings to cast a pall over both energizing and enervating meetings.
To paraphrase department-store owner John Wanamaker’s comment on advertising, Half the time I spend in meetings is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.