Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Join the Meeting Revolution

Last February in The New York Times, Carson Tate, a management consultant from North Carolina, wrote an article entitled: "When You've Had One Meeting Too Many" in which she decries the "meeting-intensive" culture in our corporate life. She gives an example of a senior manager who, because of a schedule crammed with meetings and little time at her desk, found her team  - those female members at least - following her into the restroom for consultations.

I bet just about everyone reading this would agree with her premise that we suffer from meeting glut.. "Where is X?" "He's in a meeting...."  The core question to ask is: how productive is any meeting? You can bet one without an agenda would lead the pack, followed closely by one with no time limit. Ms. Tate asks us to evaluate the  return on investment of  time - a  most  precious commodity - derived from any meeting. Then, if the answer is negative - and here is where the revolution idea comes into play - perhaps deciding not to attend.

That is easier said than done, especially if your boss has called the meeting, though perhaps it would be a service to senior management if questioning the necessity of meeting was posed more often. Sometimes meetings occur at requests of, say, project managers who want the "face time" with top management and to assert their authority over team members. No doubt there are legitimate reasons to gather. But Carson Tate reasonably suggests that if that is the case ground rules be established and promulgated in advance.

Setting agenda and time is the first rule. What will be discussed and for how long?  Without these guideposts any meeting is almost guaranteed to be a waste of time. With their establishment however is the requirement that whoever chairs the meeting - usually the convener- serve as a stern referee. The evil elf -whose name is Digression - is always a meeting attendee and should he make a vocal appearance, needs to be quickly dispatched back to his lair.

I have experienced Chairs who are masters at keeping meeting participants on task and some who have not. One in particular, who led a board, was part of the problem. Participating in one of his meetings was a little like being on a river voyage with a boat captain who, coming upon a tributary, impulsively decides to explore it, even though it means there will be a delay in arriving at the ultimate destination. The result was often frustration, meetings going over time and agenda items being given short shrift.

Others with whom I have worked have skilfully  kept the craft on course, sometimes having to tactfully shut down babblers and grumblers - all in the cause of keeping to the agenda, and the allotted time.

Trickier to manage can be the more informal meetings - "let's get together to discuss X - see you at 3."  If the person who wants the meeting cannot be persuaded to use another medium - email or conference call for example - then Tate suggests convening what I first heard called a "Navy Meeting" (presumably developed on the high seas) -  where all attendees meet standing up. Leg fatigue is sure to limit the length of discussion. I know from experience.

There are other techniques that can lead to shorter and more focused meetings- clarity on what outcomes are desired for instance, which can lead to an ongoing check of a meeting's progress by those in attendance. For formal board meetings use of a "consent agenda" can be handy. Borrowed from legislative procedure, this agenda bunches non-controversial issues into one package for a one vote approval. It assumes board members have read in advance whatever reports or matters are included. That in itself can be a challenge.

These ideas can streamline meetings, but if there is to be a  true "meeting revolution" then the need for and purpose of any meeting needs to be questioned in the first place. For everyone, time carries a high value and should not be squandered needlessly.

On a personal note, thanks to those of you who wished me well on knee replacement surgery mentioned in the February post. It has been postponed. Look for another call for sympathy sometime in the future.