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Meetings: Who needs them?

You’ve planned your work schedule for the day, arrived at the office to fulfil your functions as efficiently as possible and an email informs you of an unscheduled or forgotten meeting that has been called to tear an irreplaceable chunk out of your day. What’s the point?

There are obviously good meetings and bad meetings. There are internal and external ones, formal and informal; from the boardroom to the gathering of like-minded souls smoking fags on the fire escape.

The bad ones drone on for hours, as you listen to people marking their territory by pontificating at length, missing the point and leaving you wishing you had never attended and invariably with an increased workload.

An effective meeting is one that energises and gives a sense of objectivity and achievement. These meetings are rare, but achieve their desired objectives, take a minimum amount of time and leave the participants feeling a sensible process has been followed.

An industry has evolved around the proper management of meetings and the basics of how to run good meetings are well known, but worth re-iterating, because they are so often ignored.

It is logical that for a meeting to be successful, its objectives must be defined and made clear to all participants in advance. It is dismaying to be called to a meeting if the idea of a good outcome has not been made clear. If people know whether the aim is to arrive at a decision, to generate ideas, or to communicate something specific, they know the meeting’s objective and can be prepared.

Once the end result is clarified, the contents of the meeting and the decision as to who should be present can be determined. Nobody wants their time to be wasted, so a meeting should be as streamlined as possible and everything in the meeting should be to further its objective. Anything that does not, is superfluous.

An agenda, with a running list of topics, ensures participants stick to relevant topics and they should be referred to, to keep the meeting running on target and on time. After considering the priorities, an agenda should contain a running order and an allocated time for each of the priorities, as well as the basics; when and where will the meeting be held and who needs to attend?

When you know what is going to be covered and for how long, it is worth looking at the information that should be prepared before the meeting and participants should be made aware what is expected of them, so that they too can be properly prepared; it is often a good idea to assign individuals a particular topic, to increase involvement.

Start the meeting on time and do not waste time recapping for latecomers; during the meeting, refer to your agenda and try to make people stick to the time allocated to the topics. There is a knack to running a meeting and whoever is doing so, should not be dictatorial, but an active participant, cajoling and conducting the others.

Summarise at the end of each item and make notes about follow-ups, listing tasks that have come up and who is responsible for them. At the end of the meeting, give a quick précis and confirm a meeting summary will be circulated.

The meeting summary should be sent to all of the participants and other interested parties, so they have a record of what was accomplished and who is responsible for actions going forward. Running efficient and successful meetings is an art, but what if you don’t want to?

Dan Burrier is the chief innovation officer for Ogilvy and Mather, North America, and is of the opinion that bad meetings can be a positive thing. Burrier says he is always worried by the words; “We had a great meeting.” The purpose of a meeting is not the meeting itself and the pursuit of a good meeting can create a bad result. He says that if a meeting moves a team closer to its core and shared business goals, then it can be said to have been a good meeting, but that too often a ‘good meeting’ is used to mean one where people just agreed, said yes, or got away with something.

He says: “Very often, it is disagreement, discomfort and ‘no’ that move the ball forward. At Ogilvy, I remind people that, ‘We’re not being paid millions for a meeting at 10am in room 8A.’ Instead, we are entrusted to build brands, develop market strategies, create sales and spark true market movement.”

Ogilvy wants to carve out new spaces for its clients and forge trusted relationships with consumers and markets, which is hard work and not always pleasant. Burrier says: “It is not about the meeting and it’s not always about making the sale. A sale for a sale’s sake can put a relationship at risk; instead put the relationship and business goal first.”

He believes you should enter a meeting listening, willing to be wrong, to adapt and to change. For this approach to work, all parties have to be of a similar mindset, but good clients value the human relationships that have been built up and share their aims openly; sometimes discomfort is the path to greatness.

Burrier says that the best companies not only understand this approach, but actively encourage it; “It takes bravery on both sides to have a bad meeting that creates great results.” He says there is nothing wrong with happiness, as long as the job gets done, that progress is made. He says you should celebrate bad meetings in which there is disagreement, nothing is sold and the outcome is more work. Doing the right thing is hard work.

Burrier suggests that people who really want to attend a meeting, just because they feel they deserve to be there, should be disinvited because the pursuit of personal approval or territorial gain never moves the business objective forward. His view is essentially that one meeting will lead to others and the process is complex and iterative.

His point about not inviting people is a good one, because, despite the fact that people complain about having too many meetings, most people actually love them and seem to enjoy spending time in as many meetings as possible.

People tend not want to work alone and meetings encourage social interaction, people want contact and relationships with others to feel part of a community and meetings also offer an outlet for personal feelings, not just on work issues, but also on personal and current topics.

The off-target chat in meetings is often an important social outlet, helping people feel informed and connected; meetings act as an informal loom, weaving organizational threads together. Meetings help create information networks and represent status; attendance at staff meetings shows you are important, that your opinion is valued, that you are a decision-maker, part of the leadership team.

Just being asked a question in a meeting can be status-enhancing and the psychological drivers of meetings can be very powerful, trumping all logical and rational ‘meeting management’ advice. What may seem like wasted time, may be fulfilling important personal and organizational needs.

This, however, is no excuse for meetings to get out of control and all managers need to guard against wasteful meeting proliferation and poor meeting discipline. Meetings should be ‘fit for purpose’ and so should the people invited. A company must be wary of any employee who views meetings as an opportunity for fun at work, a subject we will be looking at in our next article.

“A parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of mostly idle people.”
Walter Bagehot

Nigel Phillips

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