Meeting adjourned; but not before a lot of time is wasted

There seems to be a direct inverse relationship between the length of business meetings and the productivity of the organisations holding them

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 1:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 1:31am

There is little doubt that one of the biggest time-wasters in the business world is brought about by meetings. Of course such time-wasting is hardly exclusive to the corporate world; the government bureaucracy, for example, can win any meeting-holding contest. However, they are spending other folk's money so this is unfair competition.

I've been thinking about meetings because my company's weekly management meeting last week was accomplished well within an hour despite a reasonably full agenda. No one likes a smug chronicler of these events so let me admit that others have lasted longer.

Anyway, I've always thought that one of the advantages of running your own business is that you can control the length of meetings. I am tempted to make the unscientific observation that there is a direct inverse relationship between the length of meetings and the productivity of the organisations that hold them.

This not an argument for abolishing meetings or arbitrarily curtailing their length because a great deal of good comes out of human interaction, not least when complex and controversial plans have to be defended in person. However, we humans seem to be designed to talk too much and when we are in groups we are all too easily diverted.

A great deal of good comes out of human interaction … [but] when we are in groups we are all too easily diverted

I used to work on a British Sunday newspaper that held two big editorial conferences per week. The first, held on a Wednesday, lasted the longest because we were under less pressure and the meeting became an opportunity for various bigwigs to display their erudition and ability to make wry remarks. Working on a daily newspaper, with far greater time pressure and far more work to be accomplished, I found editorial meetings to be briefer and more productive.

Although journalists are much mocked for their lax ways and a myriad of other faults, trust me on this: they can be exempted from accusations of rampant inefficiency in getting the job done.

This view was strongly reinforced when I did some work for one of the world's leading management consultants, where I was gently mocked for being too much of a journalist. That mainly meant that I got fed up with how long these highly paid consultants took to reach decisions, compared with my "superficial mindset" of getting things done fast.

Video conferencing was a big feature of this organisation's way of conducting business. Apparently this represented an efficient and hi-tech utilisation of resources. The reality was that a great deal of the time was filled with people in different countries asking each other whether they were there and whether they could be heard. Worse still was the fact that because everyone was not in the same room, some of the participants would drift off both physically and mentally.

And, of course, these meetings dragged on and on and usually ended with mutual congratulation over how successful they had been. Sometimes you got the impression that the meetings were an end in themselves. This is not merely a feature of video conferencing but of all manner of meetings where satisfaction is derived from having gathered a variety of people in a single place.

Yet even the most assiduous meeting holders recognise that their length needs to be curtailed. One company I know of does not allow participants to sit because it believes that comfort unnecessarily prolongs proceedings.

The late and not lamented Spanish dictator, General Franco, was famous for his bowel control and would not allow members of his cabinet to leave the room to attend to urgent bowel-related business. The imperative to keep meetings short was therefore clearly understood.

These measures strike me as extreme but getting people to focus and be succinct seems more than a worthy objective.

As a very junior political operative in Britain I was assigned to take the minutes at various meetings. The chairman of one of these committees was the formidable Ian Mikardo MP, who used to arrive with an agenda and way of conducting the meeting firmly in his mind.

When one of the participants embarked on what looked like being a rambling intervention he would say something along the lines of "Can I just stop you there, in summary you are saying you disagree/agree…" with whatever matter was under discussion.

Should they have had the temerity to argue by saying something like "I think it's more complicated than that", the late Mikardo would simply cut them off with a brusque "well, I don't". This shut them up and we made rapid progress.