Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online
Is too much of your time spent in unnecessary or ineffective meetings? If so, you're not alone. Most managers consider meeting fatigue and meeting failures as two of the most significant drains on their productivity. As a result, an entire industry has sprung up over the past twenty years focusing on "meeting management." Every company has courses on how to run good meetings, and in case you miss the training there are posters, laminated cards, and checklists for preparation, conduct, and follow-up.
As a result of this saturation of meeting education, almost every manager knows the basic rules: Be clear about what you want to accomplish; invite the right people; send out pre-reading in advance; have an agenda and follow it with discipline; send out notes with key decisions and action steps. You know the drill.
Unfortunately these basic and widely understood guidelines for effective meetings are probably the least followed procedures in corporate history. If the government conducted "meeting audits" almost every company would fail. Most managers still complain about ineffective meetings, and then proceed to schedule multiple meetings and run them poorly. It's an amazing phenomenon.
This leads to one of the dirty little secrets of organizational life: Despite their protestations, at an unconscious (or conscious) level most managers actually like meetings, and for several reasons.
They encourage social interaction. Most people don't enjoy working alone; they want contact and relationships with other people. Meetings make them feel part of a community, and give them an outlet for sharing their personal feelings and opinions, not only on work issues but also on personal or political topics. So, some of the seemingly off-target chatter in meetings (even the complaining) is actually the realization of an important social outlet.
They keep everyone in the loop. As firms have become more matrixed and interdependent, meetings serve as the informal loom that weaves together the organizational threads. People need to know what's going on in other parts of the organization. They need informal sources to supplement the formal communication mechanisms -- and to guide them through political and personal minefields. These information networks are created, reinforced and expanded through meetings.
They often represent status. Membership on multiple committees means that you are important, your opinion is valued, and you have a seat at a decision-making table. Attendance at staff meetings means that you are part of the leadership team. Even being asked to present or answer questions at a meeting on a one-time basis gives you visibility with senior people and is status-enhancing.
These psychological drivers of meetings are very powerful -- and usually trump all of the logical and rational "meeting management" advice that is doled out in courses and articles. In other words, what seems like wasted or unproductive time for many managers is actually fulfilling important personal and organizational needs.
This does not pardon meetings run wild and the time we lose to them. Managers at all levels need to be continuously on guard against unnecessary meeting proliferation and poor meeting disciplines. For example, several years ago in GlaxoSmithKline's research organization there was a realization that -- as a result of multiple project meetings and the inclusion of all functions on drug development teams -- many people were spending as much time in meetings as they were on actual drug development work. As a result the company developed a "fit for purpose" meeting process in which only the people directly involved in a particular phase or issue of the project attended the meetings, while others just received information.
All organizations should periodically look at their meeting patterns and make adjustments like this in addition to encouraging the use of agendas, virtual meeting approaches, and all the rest. However just complaining about too many meetings or poorly run meetings won't do much good. Like moths to a flame, we'll keep coming back, no matter what we say.
What are your feelings about meetings?