Monday, December 1, 2014

Meetings Are A Waste Of Time

Project meeting, team meeting, quarterly review meeting, town hall meeting, leadership meeting, client meeting, post-mortem meeting, pre-meeting...

Our working life revolve around meetings, meetings and meetings. All in the spirit of collaboration, teamwork, knowledge sharing, leveraging resources, aligning strategic interests, cascading key messages, and so on. You know the drill. Every day, there's always some meeting or two going on. Some are necessary, most aren't. And those which are necessary usually run longer than they should.

This is HELL, and the guy standing is SATAN.

Why Meetings Are A Waste Of Time

Meetings are a waste of time. Here are some reasons why:

1. Delay action - Meetings are meant to drive action. Problem is, people are more fond of talking than acting, hence the proliferation of meetings. More meetings, less action. Or even better: more meetings, more chances of talking people out of taking action altogether. There are all sorts of techniques to delay action - brainstorm alternatives, challenge existing proposal, request for more research, etc. Such techniques, even when done with good intentions, can stifle action, as overload of ideas and facts can paralyse and terrify the best of minds into inaction.

2. Dilute accountability - Meetings are a convenient means to dodge responsibility. Managers love meetings, because it's their get-out-of-jail card - when their plan fail, they can conveniently lessen the blow to their credibility ("Oh, the decision was made by consensus"). Lowly workers also love meetings, because post-mortem meetings give them a last-ditch chance to shift the blame to someone else ("Oh, we in Engineering told Marketing that the tests weren't complete yet, but they didn't want to listen"). Good solid decision-making is lost in the sludge of meetings.

3. Focus on self-promotion - Meetings are meant to build teamwork and synergy. But every so often, meetings are twisted into feel-good self-glorification exercises. For sharing sessions, participants are prone to inflate their recent achievements, basically showering themselves with confetti and champagne. For planning sessions, they will trumpet on their past experiences and accolades, basically showing off their battle scars and medals of honours (but when called to action, they will humbly decline being thrown into the frontline trenches, on the basis they are better off keeping "their seat on the table at the command centre" where their "strategic input would be most valuable"). Instead of being team-centric, meetings have become self-centric.

Meetings 1 Work 0

(Illustration by Scott Adams)
How To Stop Meetings From Wasting Time

For the sake of efficiency and productivity, the ways we conduct meetings need to change. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Lessen Meetings - Cut down unnecessary meetings, simple as that. Start with the premise that work needs to be done, not discussed. Start with the premise that workers are competent enough to do the work allocated to them, without constant supervision. When properly delegated, work can be done without much discussion. Often times, a simple exchange of emails and conference calls easily saves the trouble of physical meetings. Less meetings means less time wasted on travelling, small talk and logistics, and more time spent on actually working.

2. Provide Agenda and Pre-Reads - Most meetings start with someone standing up to give an introductory recital of the background facts and context (for new projects), or a summary of updates much like the "last week on..." opening segment for TV series (for running projects). All these can be avoided by the chair circulating a memo to each participant via email. Things written down stick to mind more than things spoken. This way, meetings can jump straight to the discussion.

3. Set Time Limit - For every meeting, set a time. And stick to the time. Start on the dot, late-comers just have to catch up. No overruns, pressure to all participants to complete discussion within time. Length of meetings range from short (15 minutes), medium (30 minutes) and long (1 hour). Anything longer warrants a special justification, and considered a special occasion (e.g. fact-finding interviews, town-hall webcast). Time is of essence.

4. Take Leadership - Someone has to take charge of the meeting. Keeping time, following the agenda, shutting ramblers up, and most crucially, ensure that decisions are made to achieve the meeting's objective. Do not hesitate to crack the whip of discipline, to compel people to focus on things that matter, and cut out things that don't. Meetings that spiral out of control is the clearest sign of weak leadership.

5. Take The Comfort Out Of Meetings - Meetings tend to get too comfy. Plush rotating chairs, endless stream of snacks and coffee, the moment of peace when someone drones on and on. But that's counter-productive. People shouldn't feel comfy in meetings. People are meant to feel pressured to think, discuss and resolve issues, so that the meeting ends and work begins. Do away with chairs at meeting rooms, and hold standing meetings. Walk your boss to his car after work, and hold walking meetings. Squeeze meetings between the cracks of your work schedule, not vice versa.

Meetings 2 Work 0

(Illustration by Scott Adams)

Less Talk, More Action

"A little less conversation," Elvis Presley once pleaded, "A little more action please".

If only more people take those words to heart in the work space, we'll all get out of the damn office and get on with our lives much quicker.


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