September 15, 2015

Are Meetings Taking Over Your Life?

So many people we work with find themselves with relentless schedules of back-to-back meetings, leaving them asking when it is they’re supposed to do their ‘real work’. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) reports that 50% of the 1200 managers surveyed want to become more productive, and 45% want to reduce time wasted by unnecessary meetings and emails.


A few years ago a client who was concerned that meetings were not adding value asked us to set up a survey to gauge the quantity and effectiveness of meetings. Creating the survey was easy, but getting responses wasn’t: it turned out the vast majority of managers were simply running from meeting to meeting, day in day out with scant time for anything else.


Over time it seems that for many people, a culture of attending meetings has spread almost by stealth, quietly but steadily eroding the time available to do their main value adding work. The trouble often seems to be that everyone feels like they have too many meetings to attend, yet calling a meeting is the default whenever something needs to be decided or done. And these meetings often result in follow up meetings. Everyone becomes guilty of co-creating the culture that everyone dislikes.


So you might be interested in the work of Al Pittampalli, and his excellent book “Read this Before Our Next Meeting: The Modern Meeting Standard”. Focussing specifically on organisations that have to wrestle with change, deal with complex challenges and coordinate coherent motion, he outlines 8 principles for what he calls the ‘Modern Meeting’.  


To understand each of the principles in full – and the thinking that went into coming up with them - we’d highly recommend reading the book. And to whet your appetite, here’s a little bit about a few of them:


Meetings don’t make decisions. Leaders do.

Many groups seems to assume that the meeting will make the decision that needs to be made. Big mistake. Meetings can’t make decisions, only leaders can. This doesn’t mean leaders need to be dictatorial though: for a high consequence decision they’ll ask for input from others and choose a decision making process which generates the commitment needed for action. But if there’s a deadlock in opinions, it’s the leader that needs to take the hard decision. You may have heard Patrick Lencioni’s maxim (famous for the 5 Dysfunctions of A Team):

“If people don’t weigh in they won’t buy in.”

Let them have their say and advocate their opinion. Once you’ve listened, if there’s still no agreement, make the decision.

So when you have a decision to make, consider:

·   Is this a high, low or no consequence decision? 

·   No consequence? Make the decision as quickly as possible. Don’t consult others. You have our permission to act on our behalf. 

·   Low or high consequence? You’ll probably want to consult with others, and the higher the consequence, the more consultation will likely be needed. But consult WITHOUT calling a meeting! Have a 1:1 conversation, or send an email. Less convenient for you, but it’s your decision to make, so don’t go wasting others’ time calling a meeting at this stage. 

Then make a preliminary decision. Now you’re ready to hold a meeting. 
What Pittampalli is saying here is that when we need to decide a course of action where the consequences of the decision are not high, the default still seems to be to click a but- ton and take an hour out of several other people’s time to help you make your decision. This causes far too much disruption, and frequently, over-planning. 

As the meeting organiser, come to the meeting with at least your preliminary decision made. It may be that the decision is controversial, in which case the alternatives can be debated in the meeting. But don’t come to a meeting not knowing in which direction you want to go, prepared to back up your thoughts. 


The focus in the meeting is towards speed, conflict and coordination. We recall working with a client who we later found out had needed to quickly improve health and safety at work after some serious incidents. The board meetings which had followed resulted in reams of paper that had to be circulated, commented on (by far too many people), adjustments made and so on. Before they knew it they had a 200 page document in its 4th iteration that no one had had time to read. It was only at that point that they took a step back and questioned how they were going about making the urgent improvements they wanted. They’d lost 3 weeks and created a window of opportunity for more accidents. Not ideal. The Modern Meeting wouldn’t allow this. The Modern Meeting’s focus would be make at least a preliminary decision, meet to discuss it and then coordinate what you’re going to do, with what resource, by when. Not rocket science, but it often seems rare to find in practice.


Rejects the unprepared.

Every meeting should require work from both the organiser and the participants. Naturally there’s an agenda, but with a slight difference. Pittampalli advocates agendas which:

·      describes the problem, the alternatives and the (preliminary) decision

·      outline the type of feedback requested during the meeting

·      end with a statement of what the meeting will achieve if successful

Note: AOB (any other business) does not exist. If it’s not something key to the main agenda, it doesn’t belong in the meeting.


There should be pre-meeting work for participants, and if you don’t have time to do it, you don’t have time to attend the meeting. In fact, if you come to a Modern Meeting unprepared, you won’t be invited again (see principle 6). Simple as that. People being unprepared will not be tolerated: if you’re unprepared, you’re dead weight. Senior executives are, I fear to say, often top offenders here, expecting to be briefed during the meeting. The Modern Meeting won’t allow that: the decision is king, not the executive(s).

There should be pre-meeting work for participants, and if you don’t have time to do it, you don’t have time to attend the meeting. In fact, if you come to a Modern Meeting unprepared, you won’t be invited again. Simple as that. People being unprepared will not be tolerated: if you’re unprepared, you’re dead weight. Senior executives are, I fear to say, often top offenders here, expecting to be briefed during the meeting. The Modern Meeting won’t allow that: the decision is king, not the executive(s).


Produces committed action plans.

Meeting minutes are not needed: we just need to know the decision and action plan. And if you attend one of my meetings and there’s no action plan, you have every right not to attend my next meeting.

Naturally the focus after the meeting is on following up on the agreed actions.


Some of this is quite controversial – which we like! Sometimes it takes a controversial stance to break a deadlock, a silent, creeping ‘death by meetings’ culture that everyone seems stuck in. You may find it wouldn’t all work in your organisation, but some of it might. Perhaps with a tweak here and a tweak there there could be something that would work for you.


One other thing: at Netflix, meetings always end with two questions:

1.     What decisions did we make in this meeting?

2.     How are we going to communicate the decisions (with ‘to whom’ being implicit in the question)?

This can be a very useful strategy, and one that’s very easy to implement.


You can find Al Pittampalli’s book on Amazon in hard copy or Kindle versions here. iI’s a quick read and very easy to digest, so comes highly recommended. And if you’d like help on making meetings in your organisation more

·      productive

·      streamlined

·      enjoyable

·      useful


 and less

·      frequent

·      long

·      unproductive


do get in touch for further ideas. We have a wealth of experience working with a wide range of clients in this domain and are always happy to help with ideas. You can get in touch via our contact page.

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