Meetings are Like Food

Dan BobinskiThe parallels are eerily similar. Just like overeating, attending too many meetings can be a cause of indigestion. At the opposite end of the spectrum we find organizations suffering from meeting starvation, and the health comparisons apply here, too. With insufficient or the wrong kind of meetings, organizations can stop functioning properly, lacking the strength to operate at optimal capacity. In other words, a lack of information creates malnutrition in the corporate body.

How do we find a balance between meeting bloat and meeting starvation?

Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends.” Just like people can have different nutritional requirements, the type and frequency of meetings you need depends on your organization, your industry, the ever-changing economy, plus where you are in a given business cycle.

To help you determine your own healthy balance of meetings, let’s look at why you have meetings in the first place. Meetings must have purpose! After all, it’s hard for people to get excited about attending too many, too few, or non-productive meetings. And, like I said earlier, organizations with too many unfocused meetings become sluggish, and incapable of responding quickly to problems.

An acquaintance of mine, whom we’ll call Carl, says too many meetings was a common problem at his workplace. During a monthly committee meeting, it was determined that a certain procedure had to be changed. Since Carl was quite familiar with the procedure and knew what needed to be fixed, he wrote out the needed changes, and at the end of the meeting he handed them to the committee chair. But rather than accept Carl’s input, the chair appointed Carl to sit on a review committee which was to meet for two or three days to determine the best solution.

Suffice it to say Carl was not impressed, but striving to be a team player, he went. The meeting lasted three days. Carl tried conveying his solution, but the committee seemed more intent on fighting turf wars and pointing fingers. At the end of the third day, the committee chair was visibly frustrated. “We need something, people,” he said, “We need a solution!”

Carl had enough. Once again he wrote out his solution on a sheet of paper, but this time he took out another piece of paper and scribbled a few sentences. Then he stood up and handed both papers to the chair. “What’s this?” the chair asked. “One is the same solution I gave you four days ago,” Carl said. “The other is my resignation. I quit.”

Meetings must have purpose

As mentioned earlier, the general purpose of any meeting is to keep your team healthy and growing. This means each meeting should accomplish two main goals: Keep people moving in the direction of company/team goals, and increase a team’s efficiency and effectiveness. Beyond that, you can enhance the effectiveness of meetings by ensuring that each meeting has its own specific purpose.

It’s likely that you attend meetings scheduled by other people, but perhaps you also call meetings. Although you have little control
over the meetings scheduled by others, you have plenty of control over the meetings called by you or by people on your team, so let’s make that our focus.

Let’s consider another acquaintance of mine, Jessica. Not long ago, Jessica realized that one third of her week was spent in unnecessary meetings. In fact, half the meetings she was asked to attend had no stated agenda, and most of those felt like meetings just to have a meeting.

As a team leader, Jessica knew that others on her team had similar feelings, so one day she took a hard look at the different meetings she and her team were having. She decided on the following rules for reducing meeting overkill:

• Do not hold meetings if no clear purpose is stated

• Minimize status meetings

• For decision-meetings, distribute information ahead of time if possible

Let’s look at each rule independently.

Do not hold meetings if no clear purpose is stated

Meetings become much more efficient and effective when they have a clear purpose and/or an agenda. We can clarify the purpose of our meetings by answering one or both of these questions:

• At the end of this meeting, what decisions must I have in hand?

What needs to be communicated?

We can further strengthen the value of any meeting when we answer the question, “How does this meeting align with our team/company goals?” It’s also a best practice to create an agenda for each meeting, and make sure each item identifies a person responsible for presenting or leading the discussion on that subject.

Minimize status meetings

With today’s technology, there’s little reason to hold most status meetings. The status of projects can be sent via email or updated in project management software. That said, know that when communicating status electronically, you may need to devise a way to ensure people are staying up-to-date on
a project’s status. Information overload often means
some updates get overlooked.

For decision meetings, distribute info ahead of time

Jessica chose this rule because she felt too much time was being wasted presenting background on matters that required decisions. By sending out this information in advance, people can read it at times convenient to them. The benefits? People come to meetings already informed, plus they have time to think about what issues they want to discuss. The result is often better decisions. That said, when you send out material, be sure to clarify what decision(s) will be needed at the meeting.

This is part one of a two-part series on meetings. Next month, I’ll touch on how you can maintain a healthy balance of meetings in your quest for optimal organizational health.

Dan Bobinski is president of Workplace-Excellence.com and Everything-Training.com As a consultant, speaker, and trainer, he helps organizations of all shapes and sizes create excellent workplaces. He is also the author of numerous books, including the best-selling “Creating Passion-Driven Teams.” Reach him at dan@workplace-excellence.com.