5 Things: Stuff I learned about meetings

I’ve held an Associate Dean’s role over the past three years and the number of meetings that I was required to attend increased dramatically. However, the number of meetings that I thought I had to attend or hold increased far more than that and it wasn’t until I realised the five things below that my life became more manageable. Some of you will already know all of this but I hope it’s useful to at least a few people out there!

  1. Meetings can add work to your schedule but you get very little work removed from your schedule in a meeting.Meetings can be used to report on activity, summarise new directions, and make decisions. What you cannot easily do is immediately undertake any of the work assigned to you in this or any other meeting while you’re sitting around the table, talking. Even if you’re trying to sneakily work at a meeting (we’ve all done it in this age of WiFi and mobile devices), your efficiency is way below what it would be if you weren’t in a meeting.

    What this means is that if your day is all meetings, all your actual work has to occur somewhere else. Hint hint: don’t fill your week with meetings unless that is supposed to be your job (you’re a facilitator or this is a pure reporting phase).

  2. Meetings are not a place to read, whether you or the presenter are just reading documents. The best meetings take place when everyone has read all of the papers before the meeting. Human reading speed varies and there is nothing more frustrating than a public reading of documents that should have been absorbed prior to the meeting. Presentations can take place in a meeting but if the presentation is someone talking at slides? Forget it. Send out a summary and have the presenter there to answer questions. The more time you spend in meetings, the less time you have to do the work that people care about.

    And if someone can’t organise/bother themselves to read the documents when everyone else does? They’re not going to be that much help to you unless they have an absolutely irreplaceable skill to bring to the table. There is a role for the sharp-eyed curmudgeon but very few organisations have one, let alone more than one. Drop them off the list.

    Vendor demonstration? Put it in a seminar room where everyone can sit comfortably instead of forcing everyone to crane their necks around a boardroom table. Fix a time limit. Have questions. End the session and get back to doing something useful. Your time is valuable.

  3. Only invite the people who are needed for this meeting.

    Coming up with some new ideas? You can crowdsource it more easily without trying to jam 300 people into a room. One person who doesn’t “get it” is going to act as a block on the other 299 in that community and a group can easily go down a negative direction because it’s easier to be cautious than it is to be adventurous. Deciding on a path forward? Only bring in the people who actually need to make it happen or you’ll have a room full of people who say things like “Surely, …” or “I would have thought…” which are red flags to indicate that the people in question probably don’t know what they’re talking about. People with facts at their disposal make clear statements – they don’t need linguistic guards to protect their conjecture.Any meeting larger than 6 people will have a very hard time making truly consensual complex decisions because the number of exchanges required to make sure everyone can discuss the idea with everyone else gets large very quickly. (Yes, this is a mesh network thing, for those who’ve read my earlier notes on this. 2 people need one exchange. 3 people need 3 if they can’t easily reach consensus. That looks ok until you realise that, in the worst case for discussions between pairs, 4 people need 6, 5 need 24 and 6 need 120. These are single discussions between pairs.)

    When you’ve come up with the ideas, then you can take them to the community as a presentation, form smaller groups to discuss it and then bring the comments back in again.

    The best group for a meeting consists of the people who have the knowledge, the people who have the resources and the people who have the requisite authority to make it all happen.

  4. Repeating the problem isn’t a contribution.

    Some people feel that they have to say something at a meeting but, given that positive contributions can be hard to come up with and potentially risky, the “cautious voice of reason” is a pretty safe play unless the meeting is titled “Innovative Ideas Forum That Will Stop Me Firing Some Of The Participants”. The first part of that is constantly repeating the problem or part of a problem, especially if you use it to shut down someone else who is working on something constructive.The plural of anecdote is not data so repeating the one situation that has occurred and has a tangential relationship to the problem at hand does little to help, especially if (like so many of these anecdotes) it’s not a true perception of what happened and contradicts all the actual evidence that is being presented in the meeting. Memory is a fickle beast and a lot of what is presented as “we tried this and it didn’t work” will often omit key items that would make the recollection useful.

    The role of “Devil’s Advocate” has no place in brainstorming or (forgive me) “blue sky” thinking and is often more negative than useful. But that is actually the safer option for that contributor: “the sky will fall” has been a good headline since we developed language. Like a friend of mine once said “As if the Devil needs much help in these days of constrained resources and anti-intellectualism”.

    Encouraging participants to think in a “We could if this happened” rather than a “That will never work” is more likely to bring about a useful outcome.

    Finally, some people are just schmucks and their useful skills are impaired by an unhelpful attitude. That’s a management problem. Don’t punish the other people in a meeting because one person is a schmuck. Meetings can be really useful when you remove the major obstructions.

  5. Meetings end when the objectives have been achieved or the time limit runs out, whichever comes first.

    I now book out 30 minute slots for most meetings and try to get everything done in 15 minutes if possible. That gives me 15 minutes to write things up or start the wheels moving. I hate sitting around in meetings where everything has been done but someone has decided that they need to say something to confirm their attendance value at the meeting. This is often when point 4 gets a really good work-out. (Yeah, full confession, I’ve done this, too. We all have bad days but you try not to make it the norm! 🙂 ) Some meetings get an hour or two because that’s what they need. Longer than that? Build in breaks. People need bathroom breaks, food, and time to check on the state of the world.The best meetings are the meetings where everyone gets the agenda and the documents in advance, read through it, then can quickly decide if they even need to get together to discuss anything. In other words, the best meetings are the ones where clear communication can occur without the meeting and work can get done anyway. E-mail is a self-documenting communication system and allows you to have a meeting, without minutes, wherever the participants are. Skype (or other conferencing system) allows you hold a distributed meeting and record it for posterity, with everyone in the comfort of their own working space. Face-to-face is still the best approach for rapid question and answer, and discussion but everyone is so busy, you need to keep it to the shortest time possible.

    The Scooby Gang, stunned that Caltech was now in the range 50-100.

    The Scooby Gang, not having a productive meeting. Go and solve crimes, you crazy kids!

    Then you can use the reserved meeting time to actually do your work. If you have to have the meeting, start on time and finish on time. By doing this, it will drive the behaviours of good document dissemination and time management in the meeting.

I realised I had a problem when I discovered that 40% of my week was meetings because all I was doing was running from meeting to meeting. I cut my meetings back, started using documents, trimmed attendance lists, started using quick catch-ups instead of formal meetings more often and my life became much easier. Hope this is useful!

2 Comments on “5 Things: Stuff I learned about meetings”

  1. Alex H says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Both of the positions “I can’t get my work done because I’m spending all this time in meetings” and “Going to meetings *is* my work” can be uncomfortable.

    You might find the following interesting.

    On group decision making: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominal_group_technique

    On email as a substitute for (or complement of) meetings: http://www.fastcompany.com/3017396/work-smart/is-there-life-after-email-yes-and-its-amazing


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s