Why most internal meetings are a waste of time
I have written about this before and make no apologies for doing so again after having to attend a rather large number of business meetings reminding me how much time is wasted by too much jaw-jaw.
At least within my own company I can control our internal meetings, which are as brief as possible. We have just one weekly management meeting; the aim is to finish it within an hour and to ensure that we stick to a pretty rigid agenda covering items that require some kind of action. We have some additional informal meetings during the week to tackle specific issues but they are short and focused and only involve those who actually need to follow up on what is being discussed.
This system may not be perfect but anyone reading this who works for a meeting-inclined organisation will know what the alternative looks like. Those working in large public sector bureaucracies will have specialist knowledge of long meetings as they tend to spend large swathes of their working day attending prolonged meetings, which seem almost to be an end in themselves.
However they are not alone and it is remarkable how many organisations indulge in really long meetings where a great deal time is taken up with reporting on things that have been done, or indeed can be presented as having been done in order for the participants to look good.
Some people just love meetings, others see them as opportunities for self-aggrandisement, while others simply take the view that sitting in a meeting is more relaxing than doing any productive work.
It is commonly believed that the bigger the organisation, the bigger the requirement for meetings because large bodies have a greater need for coordination and, by virtue of their size, they involve larger numbers of people.
There may be something in this but experience shows that large organisations work best when power and responsibility is devolved. Sometimes widespread coordination is unavoidable but when it comes down to it, does it really require large meetings? Even a Neanderthal, such as myself, just about understands that electronic communication provides opportunities to get a hell of a lot sorted out without the need for a face-to-face meeting, let alone one involving a whole host of people.
Nevertheless it is often said that meetings are just great for brain storming and cultivating the personal relationships that strengthen organisations. I have taken the trouble to ask around as to whether these assumptions actually work in practice. I am pleased to report that my prejudices in this respect seem to be bourne out by the experience of others.
What tends to happen in these so-called brain storming sessions is that they are dominated by a very few people, usually those who are deeply in love with the sound of their own voices. Most participants sit silently while the vocal participants drone on.
Another facet of these large gatherings is that you always find participants who are determined to discover what their bosses want to hear and make a point of saying it as often as possible.
The other problem is manageability, in rare cases where there is a genuine diversity of opinion and a complex issue to be resolved; large-scale meetings are said to be appropriate for finding a resolution, but they are not.
In a past life I worked for an organisation that can only be described as meeting-inclined. As a junior staff member I was responsible for minute-taking at a committee chaired by someone who understood that meetings could not be avoided but had his own excellent system for circumventing the time wasting and irrelevance of these proceedings.
When I produced my first set of minutes, which were long and detailed, the chairman went through them, reducing the size by more than half and adding summaries that were a hell of lot more concise than the proceedings themselves.
“There’s no point recording all the stuff we heard,” he told me. “It only encourages them.” But, I said timorously, I am not sure that what you’ve written is actually what was decided. He looked at me with contempt and said something along the lines of: what was decided was more or less a waste of time, the job of the minutes is to transform dust into something approaching gold, and that means taking a liberal view of what was discussed and turning it into something useful. Interestingly. no one ever questioned these minutes; on the contrary, I was complimented for having ‘caught the spirit of the meeting’.
So, if the best way of approaching big meetings is to basically ignore their outcome, and the best way of saving time is to have less of them, there are some pretty obvious conclusions to be drawn here.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster