Herald Journal Columns
April 10, 2006, Herald Journal

Meeting our lives away


It is a familiar scene. You are sitting in a room watching the minutes tick by, and you realize that this is yet another hour of your life that you will never get back.

Your eyes are glazed, and the drone of the voices around you is having a soporific effect.

You are stuck in another meeting.

Some people say that meetings are a necessary evil.

It would be more accurate to say that some meetings are a necessary evil, and others are not necessary at all.

And, those that are necessary could be run much more efficiently.

Some meetings are intended to disseminate information. Other meetings are designed to solve a problem. There are even meetings about meetings.

Over the years, I have endured far more meetings than I care to remember.

As a result of this experience, I have observed a few basic truths about meetings.

Generally speaking, the more people involved in a meeting, the less efficient it becomes.

For some reason, the people who schedule meetings tend to include more people than are necessary. Many meeting attendees have no idea why they are there, and don’t contribute much to the process.

When it comes to the frequency of meetings, and the number of meeting attendees, more is definitely not better.

I once worked for a company that conducted weekly managers’ meetings.

We were required to meet every Friday, whether we had anything to discuss or not.

From a productivity and economic standpoint, these meetings were a disaster.

A room full of the highest paid employees in the company sat around for an hour or so each week, and discussed important things like potluck lunches and holiday decorating contests.

Meanwhile, the work was not getting done.

And, on the rare occasions where there was an important issue that needed to be resolved, we were unable to make a binding decision anyway, since the company president usually refused to attend the meetings (even though he mandated them), and would override any decisions that were made.

Fortunately, there are survival techniques available to those who are required to attend pointless meetings.

One can bring some other work to do while the meeting drones on around one.

If you do not have any business-related work that you can do during a meeting, it is OK to be creative.

I watched one resourceful manager address all of her Christmas cards during a particularly boring staff meeting one year.

As a last resort, it is good to have an escape plan. You can make a deal with a co-worker or business associate to call or page you at an appointed time. This will give you an excuse to flee, and it is likely that the only people who will notice that you forgot to come back will be the other poor sods who are wishing they had been able to escape.

When you implement your escape plan, you can even set up a buddy system, where they rescue you from meetings, and you do the same for them.

The clock is ticking

Time is a non-renewable resource. I wish I could get back some of the countless hours I have spent in pointless meetings. I can think of a lot of better things I could do with that time.

Meetings often start too late, and last too long.

If, for example, a meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m., it should start at 3 p.m., not 3:05, or 3:10. Starting late is not only disrespectful, it means a complete waste of time for those who bothered to show up on time.

Meetings also tend to drag on too long.

The longer a meeting goes on, the less productive it is likely to be.

Any meeting, regardless of its purpose, should have an agenda and a time limit.

If the objective of the meeting can not be clearly defined, the meeting is just not necessary.

Agendas should also be provided to participants prior to a meeting whenever possible, to allow them to come to the meeting prepared. This will make for a more productive meeting, and meeting participants will not have to wait around for others to get up-to-speed.

Some meetings leave attendees wondering why they needed to be included, and what was actually accomplished during the meeting. Providing and following an agenda can help eliminate this problem.

A good agenda will specifically state why the item is being discussed. For example, if a the goal is to agree on a schedule for summer hours, the agenda should state this, rather than just saying, “summer hours,” which opens the door for ambiguity.

If the reason for inclusion cannot be defined, the item probably does not belong on the agenda.

Placing a time limit on discussion of each agenda item will help eliminate circuitous discussion, and encourage people to use the time wisely, rather than covering the same ground multiple times.

Thought should be given to who really needs to be involved in a meeting. Often, it would be both more efficient and productive to limit participation, and communicate the results of the meeting to those who need them via a brief summary.

Trying to cram too much into a single meeting can leave participants rolling their eyes and playing back movies in their heads.

It is much better to limit the topics to those that actually apply to the participants, rather than adopting a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

Smaller, more focussed meetings are preferable to larger, all-inclusive meetings.

Who’s in charge?

Every meeting should have a leader; someone in charge whose job it is to ensure that the agenda is followed, and to direct the discussion back to the topic at hand.

The leader is the steward of everyone’s time. It is the responsibility of the leader to herd people who wander off-topic back to the point.

It seems unlikely that we will ever be able to eliminate meetings entirely, but we could certainly get by with fewer of them.

Many things, such as progress reports and other routine business, can be handled in summary fashion through e-mail.

Keeping meetings short and to the point, and not wandering aimlessly through any topic that comes up, can help to make them a useful tool, rather than a bane to be avoided.

Asking the questions, “why do we need to meet?” and “who really needs to be involved?” will also help to save some precious time.

Meetings have their place, and working together to resolve issues is commendable. But scheduling meetings just for the sake of meeting, is something we could all live without.

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