Sunday, October 11, 2009

Avoid the Tyranny of Meetings

In a classic Dilbert cartoon, a group of co-workers sits down around a conference table and the team leader says, "There is no specific agenda for this meeting. As usual, we'll just make unrelated emotional statements about things that bother us." In that spirit, I'm about to make an emotional statement about something that bothered me throughout my corporate career, which was an excessive number of interminable, meandering, useless meetings. I counsel any of my friends in business who are willing to listen: Avoid the tyranny of meetings.

I once worked in a retail store where, at the beginning of each day, the general manager would pull his leadership team together for a meeting which lasted, literally, all morning. It was not a discussion with give and take, but rather a chance for him to go on about any subject that popped into his head. Then, meeting complete, he would walk the floor with those same leaders and get genuinely angry when he saw problems in their respective areas. Evidently, he thought we each had a clone that was getting the work done while he blathered on. It was surreal, and the very definition of the tyranny of meetings.

Later in my career, I also spent many hours in meetings where the primary objective was to discuss the fact that we spent too many hours in meetings. It was sort of like being in the U.S. Congress and serving as a member of the Committee on Committees.

In the June 2009 issue of Inc. Magazine, entrepreneur Joel Spolsky discussed how the culture of Microsoft-- where he worked in the early 1990's-- has changed in the years since he left. Then, Microsoft employed about 10,000 people worldwide, and was headquartered in Redmond, Washington, on a campus of a dozen buildings within easy walking distance of one another. Now, there are 90,000 employees globally, and 94 buildings comprise the corporate headquarters. A fleet of company-owned vehicles transports people from place to place on campus.

Most notably, at the new Microsoft, meetings have proliferated. Spolsky says, "Back in my day, meetings were avoided like the plague, and it was considered a burden if you had to go to three or four a week. But today, the average Microsoft manager is scheduled to within an inch of his or her life. The new virtue is keeping a schedule of brisk half-hour meetings, and most of the mid-level managers… [have] consecutive half-hour meetings scheduled for stretches of days at a time."

Though Microsoft's business has understandably suffered like most others in today's recessionary economy, one wonders whether bloated bureaucracy (Spolsky describes the comical series of registration steps he was required to go through just to access the free Wi-Fi network as a guest on Microsoft's campus) and the new "meeting culture" have contributed to relatively poor recent performance by Microsoft, in comparison to the leaner, more carefree days gone by.

With that said, there are clearly times when meetings are appropriate and very necessary. Often, the results that can be achieved in a face-to-face sit-down vastly exceed what can be accomplished through a phone conversation, conference call, or e-mail. Every culture is different, and no set of guidelines applies in every circumstance, but here are some basic tips for meeting organizers that might help improve the quality of your meetings and thereby increase productivity:

• Invite the right people. If the invitees to your meeting do not have the requisite experience, technical knowledge, or decision-making authority, you have wasted everyone's time.
• Start and stop the meeting on time. This will force discipline and eliminate meandering. Assign a timekeeper who has the courage to speak up when things get off track.
• Develop a detailed agenda beforehand and share it at the beginning of the meeting. It should contain specific, actionable outcomes. It should answer the questions: Why are we here and what do we intend to accomplish?
• Assign a note taker. The note taker should review key points before the end of the meeting to ensure consensus on what was discussed, and then distribute notes to all stakeholders after the meeting, including those who may have missed the meeting.
• Stick to the agenda. Don't be inflexible, but try to limit unnecessary digressions and stay on task.
• Use real data, not anecdote or emotion. Remain factual in your approach.
• Allow and encourage everyone to contribute. Listen carefully to what each team member says, even if you disagree.
• Create an environment in which people are comfortable speaking up if they do disagree. Encourage open and honest debate. Thoroughly discuss key points of difference.
• At the end, summarize meeting outcomes and assign next steps. Be specific and make sure each person knows what is expected of him/her going forward.

What is the culture of your company, organization, or team concerning meetings? Do you have too many, not enough, or just the right number of meetings? Are your meetings well-organized and efficient? Do you lose productivity with too much time wasted talking about getting work done, instead of actually doing the work? Do you have time to think and reflect in your job? If you are less than perfect in your meeting disciplines, please consider trying some of the above-described techniques. If you do, you will go a long way towards avoiding that dread corporate disease that saps energy and hinders results: the tyranny of meetings.

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