We must reinvent our meetings culture


I THINK 100 years from now, we’ll look back at the absurd amount of time organisations spend inside of meetings and we’ll laugh. Or maybe we’ll cry. The meeting problem has grown into a full-blown debacle. Back to back to back, poorly executed, tortuously long meetings are hijacking our calendars and draining our enthusiasm. But if everyone abhors them so much, how has this time-wasting pox remained uncured?

It’s because meetings are part of a clever, quasi-fiendish scheme perpetrated by individuals in organisations all over the world, maybe even you. It begins when an important decision that needs to be made appears. The person responsible for making that decision has a dilemma: making the right decision might earn him a pat on the back, but making the wrong move can jeopardise his career. After all, people might blame him. He might even get fired.

But what if there was an easy way to avoid making the decision? An option that would allow him to abdicate responsibility to a group, delay the decision indefinitely, and look productive all at the same time?

There is. It’s called a meeting. Meetings have become the stalling tactic of choice for people at every level of the organisation. Rather than confront difficult decisions, gather a reasonable amount of input, and then decide, we schedule endless meetings instead. Unfortunately, this tragedy of the commons has two terrible consequences.

First, it creates a culture of compromise. The standard business meeting consists of one person who brings a decision and then hands it off to a committee. The committee adopts the decision and tries to agree on a resolution. Yet much like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster consensus is elusive (in fact I’ve never seen it, so I’m not quite sure it even exists). Eventually, the decision gets watered down until what is left is a pathetic compromise that creates little to no change.

Second, our debilitating meetings culture creates an environment of constant interruption, killing our sense of urgency. Excessive meetings are producing schedules that leave little time for real work. Our best people, true artists, never have the long stretches of focused time necessary to do their best work on deadline. Meetings sap their life and vitality, leaving them bleary-eyed and jaded. Naturally they become resigned, merely trying to survive the day instead of focusing on producing the kind of output that changes everything.

It appears the meeting is broken beyond repair. But there is hope if we start from scratch and design a new meeting, a modern meeting.

Traditional meetings have never had a clear definition or precise boundaries. The modern meeting will exist for only one reason: to support decisions. Since bold decisions are what move our organisations forward and produce meaningful action, let’s design meetings in a way that helps enable decision-making, instead of inhibiting it.

Let’s declare that a meeting can’t exist without a decision to support. Individuals will step up and take responsibility for their own decisions. They’ll gain input from others, individually if necessary, but eventually these leaders are required to come up with their own preliminary decision. The meeting can be a forum to debate and arrive at a final resolution.We’ll make meetings shorter, faster, invite less attendees, reject the unprepared.

The promise of organisation is that many people working together can produce much more impact than the sum of those individuals working alone. If we can make the modern meeting a tool for change, worthy of the heart and soul we bring to work each day, maybe organisations will have much more impact.

Al’s book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting is published by The Domino Project. It was the number one Amazon Kindle book in the world in the week of its release.