I see that meetings are getting a bad press again.  A new survey has found that nearly a million people spend half their working week in meetings and that at least a third of that time is wasted waiting for late-comers.

Waiting for late-comers is crazy; it punishes the people who have taken the trouble to arrive on time and fails to inconvenience those who haven’t.   Indeed, waiting for late-comers actually trains people not to arrive on time; why bother when you know people will wait for you?.

Meetings are expensive events.  If you calculated the cost per hour; participants’ salaries, travelling expenses, venue costs, etc, you’d arrive at a scary figure (so scary, that no one ever works it out!).   Meetings should always start at the advertised time and on no account should any concessions be made to late-comers, such as pausing to summarise what they have missed.

I have always been fascinated by meetings despite the fact that most people grumble that  they take up too much time, go round in circles, are badly chaired, are just talking shops,  are boring…….and so on.  In fact, I love meetings!   I love watching the interplay of behaviours, verbal and non-verbal, as people attempt to influence each other.

The problems with meetings that people grumble about are so easy to fix.  Meetings tend to be boring because too much time is spent  communicating and clarifying information.  Briefing people and updating them is of course important but not to the detriment of time spent on more challenging things such as problem solving and decision making.  From a behavioural point of view, information items are rather dull; basically people are either giving information or receiving it.  By contrast, problem solving items call for a greater range of behaviours; making suggestions, building on suggestions, expressing doubts and concerns, reaching a consensus, agreeing a course of action.  These are far ‘juicier’ behaviours than those required for mere information sharing.

So, what to do?  Simple.  People can read; send them the information they need in advance of the meeting and then (and this is vital) run the meeting on the assumption that everyone has read it.  To do otherwise rewards people who don’t prepare for meetings and punishes those who do. The reason why so many people don’t bother to prepare for meetings is because experience has taught them that they don’t need to!

Another common problem with meetings is that information items tend to be scheduled first, with consultative/decision items following on afterwards.  This lulls people into a relatively passive listening mode and makes it difficult for them to switch to the cut and thrust of idea-having. The answer is to reverse the normal state of affairs and schedule the ‘juicy’ items first, followed (if you must!) by boring information items.

The chairperson is usually the scapegoat when a meeting is humdrum and often this is fair enough.  The biggest handicap to chairing a meeting well is that the chairperson knows more about the topic, or has a greater vested interest in the outcome, than any of the other participants.  Quite understandably, this means the chair focuses more on the task and less on the processes.  This is the reverse of what needs to happen.  The whole point of chairing is to look after the processes of the meeting.  This includes timekeeping, ensuring the participants’ are clear about the desired outcomes, and managing behaviour.  If some participants hog the discussion, or are unduly negative, or go off at tangents (I could give many other examples of unhelpful behaviour) the chairperson is failing to manage the processes of the meeting.

What to do?   Have the person who knows least about the topic under discussion chair that part of the meeting.  There is no reason why a meeting, with different topics, should be chaired by one person.

My final suggestion is to schedule a review of the meeting as the last agenda item.  It only takes 15 minutes to identify what went well and what went less well and to have an action plan to improve things next time round.

Meetings are wonderful learning opportunities.




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