Let’s Talk About Meetings

We all love to hate them but what can we do to actually make them better

There is a lot of talk about meetings these days. And almost all of it is negative.

The upshot of this discussion is that meetings don’t “fit” with a digital culture. They are an outdated relic of a disappearing world.

Meetings are time-consuming and slow (they are a distraction from “real work”). Meetings are rarely productive (they tend to confirm the status quo). And meetings are never open and free (they reinforce existing hierarchical power structures within an organization and the “best idea” rarely wins).

In short, meetings kill entrepreneurship and innovation. In a digital age, meetings are a recipe for disaster.

The End of Meetings?

To a large extent, this negative view of meetings is true. I am involved in several different types of organization (business, government and education) and have similar experiences in all of them.

And it isn’t only the meetings themselves. It’s trying to get back to work after the meeting is over. I have attended too many meetings that were real energy-killers.

So, I can understand that companies — in particular — try to do something about it. They don’t “do” meetings anymore. Or they seek to mitigate the negative effects by only allowing meeting sessions at the end of a business day. They limit the time people can meet. They reduce the number of meeting rooms. I have even heard of instances where people could only meet while standing.

But are these measures the right way to go?

It may come as a surprise, but my answer is no.

We all need meetings. And particularly the most innovative and agile companies.

Face-to-face interactions remain essential, even in a digital age.

In a time, where teamwork and the open exchange of ideas have become more critical than ever, we have to preserve such a face-to-face environment and the unique experience for co-creation that a meeting offers. Everyone involved needs to recognize the value of providing a meeting place and time where people can work, discuss, learn and create together.

So, instead of trying to change the meeting, it’s so much better to “fix” the behavior that causes meetings to fail.

We need to change our mindset about meetings. We must re-educate people to make them perform better in meetings.

5 Tricks for “Smarter” Meetings

So, here are five things we should all do to improve the quality of our meetings.

Don’t schedule meetings too far in advance

While I see the advantage of having meetings in your calendar as quickly as possible, I notice that this strategy doesn’t work anymore. Too many times, meetings are re-scheduled or cancelled. In a worst-case scenario, the meeting does take place but is a complete waste of time (because circumstances have changed and there is nothing to discuss).

I stopped accepting meetings in advance and try to follow the “Warren Buffet” rule as much as possible by setting up meetings only a few days or a couple of weeks before the designated time. Warren Buffet is famous for only setting up meetings the day before.

Don’t’ fill your calendar with meetings

I often see the calendars of people entirely filled for the next couple of months. They usually have their schedule open and clearly visible for all of us on their desktop. They think it shows how busy or important they are. But I don’t think too highly of such an approach.

To me, it shows that someone doesn’t have that much to do if their agenda is packed with meetings. They aren’t the real visionaries (who need time to think, re-think and come up with new and innovative ideas). Sometimes they even use meetings to justify their work performance.

As I recently heard from a friend: These are the people that cannot handle “freedom and responsibility” very well.

Start listening

Too often meetings are a waste of time because people don’t listen. They love to hear the sound of their own voice. At the start of a session, this may be OK as a way of kickstarting a process. But it quickly becomes irritating, particularly when you find out that those with the loudest voices don’t have that much to say.

Shorter really is better

Meetings are usually too long, and the discussion quickly becomes repetitive. It’s like running in circles. As soon as something is decided, the debate is restarted again. It’s like people are so happy that a decision has been made that they celebrate the outcome by repeating the whole discussion.

The chair of the meeting must stop this behavior. But if you aren’t the chairman asking the group to move on to the next agenda item is the right thing to do.

Cut the bullshit

Everyone wants to appear smart in meetings. This is natural. Many people aren’t prepared for the meetings, and the best way to conceal this is to “act” smart by asking questions or by just starting to talk without really saying anything. Repeating what has been said (see the previous) point is a great way to appear “fake smart.”. But such behaviour means that meetings become a stage for inauthenticity and any hope that they provide a platform for creativity is lost.

We all need to understand the strategies that are used to look smart in meetings (talking slowly, asking too many questions, asking to go back, asking to wait a minute and reflect on what has just been said, etc.) to detect and correct them. We need to call people out for such behaviour, so that others are less likely to copy them.

A Lesson for a Genuinely Agile Organization

Since the beginning of the year, I try to “save” my meetings by correcting the above behaviors.

And that’s because I still believe that — done right — meetings are necessary for an organization to move forward, to innovate, and to remain relevant. However, we all need to be smarter about meetings. This means that we should constantly learn (and re-learn) how to meet.

Very few meetings are really productive and successful. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying or give up. We must increase the success rate of meetings by first changing our own behaviour, but also by helping each other to become better meeting participants.

The five tricks work for me, but I must admit that it is an on-going struggle. I am still learning every day about how to successfully navigate meetings in order to maximize my productivity and creativity, and minimize my frustration and stress.

Professor & Ultra Runner

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