Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 2, 2011 2:21 PM

Your Meetings Suck

Meetings suck.

At around 2:00 pm on any given weekday, the same sinking feeling comes over me at the office and all I can think to myself is: "wow, I have to get out of here if I'm ever going to get any serious work done!" What has our work become? I actually have to physically leave my office and go home to get my work done (many would argue that the best place to work is on an airplane or a hotel room in a foreign city, while some of us escape to the corner Starbucks or local library). This is a common and shared experience in the workplace by almost all of us (especially those in management roles). Many of us grapple to lift our heads up from the haze that is a non-stop, full-day press of phone calls, emails and meetings. Meetings after meetings. Meeting to set-up more meetings. Meetings where the outcome is that more meetings will be required to resolve an issue. Meetings are taking over our businesses and keeping us from actually getting the work done. Meetings are the reason cartoons like Dilbert and TV shows like The Office exist (and why there are so funny... or sad). Let's face it: meetings not only suck, but meetings are sucking the life out of organizations... and they're taking our soul and desire to live along with it.

What happened here?

Weren't meetings originally created as a way for us to get things done? Weren't meetings supposed to be the place where decisions are made and the next steps are clearly communicated to the whole team? Weren't meetings supposed to be the place where a team can come together and brainstorm a better way to get the job done?

How did we get so bad at meetings and is there any way to save us?

For years, productivity experts have waxed poetic about how to create some semblance of practicality around a meeting. From more traditional approaches like integrating Robert's Rules of Order (a book intended to create an approach to running a meeting within the government) to much more creative solutions like never letting a meeting last longer than fifteen minutes or getting everyone to stand-up during the entire duration of the meeting (no chairs... no sitting down). The net result of those actions? Yup, we're all still drowning in more and more meetings, but that could all change if Al Pittampalli has anything to do with it.

"I used to work for Ernst & Young where I was an IT advisor, and I would sit in these meetings with Fortune 500 companies and it was sheer torture," says Al Pittampalli, who releases his first business book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting (published by Seth Godin's The Domino Project powered by Amazon), this week. "Instead of paying attention to what was happening in the meetings, they were so dreadful that I started paying attention to the structure of the meetings. Bad meetings are pervasive in almost all organizations, and I simply couldn't believe that nobody had figured out how to re-think the modern day meeting. I went on a quest to fix this and it's been fun for me. I love the topic and the insights that have come out of it."

The truth is that Read This Before Our Next Meeting is less of a business book and much more of a manifesto.

The 66 pages can be read in about an hour and he defines his new meeting framework like this: "The Modern Meeting supports a decision that has already been made. The Modern Meeting starts on time, moves fast, and ends on schedule. The Modern Meeting limits the number of attendees. The Modern Meeting rejects the unprepared. The Modern Meeting produces committed action plans. The Modern Meeting refuses to be informational. Reading memos is mandatory. The Modern Meeting works only alongside a culture of brainstorming."

"The heart of what this book is about is that a meeting cannot exist without a decision to support it that has already been made," declares Pittampalli. "That may sound strange at first, but it is paramount to understanding how to run a meeting in this day and age. Bad meetings have become such a huge problem all over the world because we have a decision problem. The meeting is just a symptom. When someone within an organization has a very important decision to make, that can be a very scary thing. They wind up calling a meeting instead of making a decision. In fact, a meeting is a great way to stall a decision. When you have a decision to make and you gather eight people into a room, not only does that seem productive, but it also gives the businessperson an opportunity to diffuse the responsibility of that decision across the participants in the meetings. That meeting turns into another meeting and it delays the decision to no end. I looked at the structure of that and realized that our traditional meeting system actually encourages people to stall. The only way to combat stalling is to re-define the meeting. The meeting should not make the decision. If you want to hold a meeting, you have to make a decision first, but that doesn't mean that you can't get input from others. You get that input from one on one conversations, and once you've got the proper amount of intelligence and input, then you can have the meeting. The meeting's purpose should be to possibly change your mind, but the bias of this new meeting model is to create real action."

Does that read like hyperbole? It shouldn't.

Add up all of the meetings you attended last week. Count those hours. Now, ask yourself: was it worth it? Did it make your customer's lives better? Did it help increase your overall sales? Did it make your co-worker's lives better? Meetings were never meant to be a distraction from the actual work (and that's, precisely, Pittampalli's point). Meetings are meant to be another forum for the advancement of the business. There's a reason Pittampalli has chosen the title, Meeting Culture Warrior, for his life's work (besides, it's much cooler than, "President" or "CEO").

We're at war. Not with one another or the competition. We're at war with our time, and if we let meetings - as they're currently being run - win, we all lose.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

My full audio conversation with Al Pittampalli will be released in an upcoming episode of Six Pixels of Separation - The Twist Image Podcast.

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by jody urquhart
    Mitch Joel

    true meetings are boring and often a waste of time.
    Recently attended one where everyone was standing, really sped things up!

    Reply
  • Posted by Madison Norton
    Madison Norton

    This is brilliant and I'm going to pick up this book as soon as it comes out. Meetings are a massive waste of time. It would be much more beneficial to think in this way to get things done, and if a meeting were actually necessary, having a collective bulletin board or something similar would work to let everyone know what is going on throughout the office. Otherwise, make the decision and call the meeting to let people know what you've decided!

    Reply
  • Posted by Claire Mills
    Mitch Joel

    Bravo Mitch! The key is to come prepared and the challenge is to know what you need to prepare to attend...it's just so annoying. I think that facilitators are needed at every meeting to get an actual realistic action list and then follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. Not sure about central boards in that I've found people don't remember to check it. A conundrum and I go home to get work done too! The general meetings don't work - you truly need bite sized meetings and then you need to be able to go off uninterrupted to get that action item done.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kneale Mann
    Mitch Joel

    No matter how much money we put on the case, no matter how many experts we hire, our time will remain limited. As much as I suspect anyone reading your columns and blogs would nod in agreement, some people must revel in the meetings that have no agenda or resolution.

    There has to be those living among us who take pleasure and perhaps even pride in the soul sucking exercise of personal discussions that fail to end with the crucial phrase "who does what by when?"

    Let's do the work, email only finished material or crucial questions, eliminate the "reply all" option on fear of dismissal and meet at the bar after work. Let's also retrofit all offices without boardrooms and no office has more than two chairs.

    It's curious that most "bosses" who prefer people to be in the office versus telecommute are usually the ones snuggled cozily in the warm embrace of yet another meeting.

    Reply
  • Posted by Wogan
    Mitch Joel

    It's not the meetings that suck - it's the work culture that sucks. The only bad meetings I've been in were the ones called by people that don't actually get work done - even WITH the meetings.

    I guess that's what you get when you emphasize authority over skill. The people best equipped to make the decisions are not the ones empowered to make them - and then that just snowballs.

    Reply
  • Posted by Miriam Berger
    Mitch Joel

    Totally agree! I spent the first 8 years of my career in multi-national corporations and in countless meetings, conference calls and webexes. Anyway not until I started consulting did I really realize how much time meetings ate up of my day. When I started working more on my own, with a reduction in meetings and more focused on getting tasks and strategic work done did I realize how much more productive I could be. That being said, and as you've said, meetings are valuable forums. I just hope that as I develop my own business or if I enter the corporate world again I can ensure that modern meetings are the way in which I'll work. I couldn't go back to living the Dilbert comic strip I once did :). Thanks for this blog post..really enjoyed it.

    Reply
  • Posted by Jeff Goins
    Mitch Joel

    Loved this book and looking forward to listening to the interview.

    Reply
  • Posted by Peter St Onge
    Mitch Joel

    Yes, the getting away from the office is so true - I used to work best in cares (Santropol on St. Urbain in my Mtl days). I never had a boss who understood :)

    On Pittampalli's recommendation to make decisions before the meeting, I do want to mention a contradictory datapoint.

    I used to work for a Japanese company (Takara Toys). I'm not sure if it's cultural to the Japanese toy industry (which is abnormally creative), but meetings were snappy, and the only purpose of a meeting was to make a decision right there. There was nemawashi beforehand, of course, but the meetings were the arenas and the discussion was frank and fruitful.

    I think it worked really well, and now that I think about it, I'm actually struggling to understand why Pittampalli would have a meeting if the decision was already made - why not send a memo?

    Reply
  • Posted by Shelley Pringle
    Mitch Joel

    I'm looking forward to the podcast. Your suggestions are spot-on. I'm always amazed at no matter how hard I try to get people (AKA clients) to prepare before a meeting, they still show up without having read the document we're there to discuss. Which means, of course, we spend half the meeting reviewing the ideas in the document, instead of discussing their thoughts about them. Anyone have any thoughts on getting clients in line (besides firing them and finding new/better ones)?

    Reply
  • Posted by Nate Guggia
    Mitch Joel

    I finally stood up for my productivity. For the last month I have been working almost exclusively remote. I found that I can accomplish more in 3-4 hrs. at home, Starbucks or wherever else than I can in an office. I don't like traditional office settings. The tend to box in my flow. I want more people to stand up for the productivity and more leaders to value productivity over their narrow view of what "work" has traditionally meant. Results are the only thing that matter. Awesome post MJ!

    Reply
  • I agree, in the corporate world, many meetings suck. But spend some time like me on the job search market and you'll long for those endless meetings!

    Complaining about workplace irritants is a luxury only employed people can afford. Think about it while putting up with your next time-wasting meeting, and try to make the most of it. Do it for all of us out there, so looking forward to be in a position to implement Mr. Pittampalli Modern Meeting framework!

    Reply
  • Posted by Rick Knowlan
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch,

    There's a grain of truth in the article as published in The Vancouver Sun, but you seem to have ignored it.

    The article states - quite correctly in my opinion, that "Bad meetings have become such a huge problem all over the world . . . ". But it goes on to support the view that "The meeting should not make the decision. If you want to hold a meeting, you have to make a decision first."

    Good luck with that one, Attila! That's like saying "OK, I've call you here to inform you of my decision. No arguments! You're either on the bus or you're under it!"

    Many very effectively managed meetings are used for making key decisions when those participating in the meeting have important stakes in the outcome. These meetings have to be well designed, must involve advance preparation by those attending, and most be well managed. When these requirements are met, meetings can be very important events in an overall planning and decision process. They are essential to ensuring people's insight and wisdom into the issues has been tapped and appropriately used, and in building support and buy-in to the decisions reached.

    Well-designed and executed meetings can be a key decision making forum for executives when understanding and buy-in is likely to enhance success. Executives ignore this at their peril.

    Reply
    • I'd recommend listening to my audio conversation with Al (which will be released in the coming weeks) to better understand the concept of coming to a meeting with decision. You should also read his book. It's actually a very smart idea that does take into consideration everyone's input. His recommendation is to that input one-on-one prior to the meeting.

      Reply
      • Posted by Rick Knowlan
        Mitch Joel

        Thanks for replying, Mitch. I'm familiar with that method, and it's OK when you're working with a lot of junior, inexperienced people. But with seasoned executives, it ignores the potential for synergy that comes from discussion among those providing the ideas. It puts the manager in the position of selecting from among competing ideas without the debate that so often enriches and improves decisions. I would never try this with seasoned execs. I think they'd lose confidence in, and, I believe, rightly so. Constructive dissent is one of the most powerful tools for improving decision quality and building support, especially for important decisions that require genuine buy-in.

        Reply
        • Again, I'd take read through Al's concepts first. I'm not sure that what you're saying is at all reflective of how his system works.

          Reply
        • Posted by Al pittampalli
          Mitch Joel

          Hello Rick, thanks for your insights. There are advantages and disadvantages to every approach. The disadvantage to your approach is delay, and often painfully slow movement. I'm all for synergistic debate, but when you do it after a prelim. decision occurs...the bias is towards action. Have you read the book?

          Reply
          • Posted by Rick Knowlan
            Mitch Joel

            Hi Al,

            No, I haven't read the book. I was commenting initially after reading the article in the Vancouver Sun, where the prescription for effective meetings is printed without qualification.

            Not all meetings suck, but certainly some do! I agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to every approach, but I'd state it in a way which I think is more fruitful: different approaches are suitable for different situations.

            I agree that allowing debate about minor issues or where there is a need for urgent action can be wasteful. I'd be the first one to stand up in a meeting and say "hey, make a decision and let's get on with it". I've done so as a consultant hundreds of times. But there are also situations in which a well-considered decision is, by far, the best approach. And that would fit most important decisions in which the participants are 1) informed about the issues, 2) sufficiently knowledgeable to make a high quality decision, 3) where there is a difference in outcomes depending on the quality of the decision, and 4) where acceptance of the decision is critical to its successful execution.

            I take my guidance on this from the hoary Vroom Yetton Jago decision model, which can be used to determine how much involvement to incorporate into a decision process. It isn't new, but it is effective, and it avoids a very important problem - poor implementation. I find it very useful in avoiding arguments with my wife, who now agrees with me that some decisions don't require her input and a long discussion about inconsequential issues, while some don't require my input. Any model that facilitates that understanding is golden, in my books! ;-)


            I'll check the book out, but as a great believer in contingency approaches, I can't sign on for any prescription that doesn't apply different decision processes depending on the situation.

            Reply
  • Posted by Lin
    Mitch Joel

    I like "standup" meetings. In nursing we meet for 10 15 minutes . In am report on current pr staffing issues problem. APIE...assessment planning intervention and,evaluation. Can be used with almost anything. We are responsible for peoples lives. We can't waste time talking about it. We leave that to the folks with the big degrees ...the boring stuff.

    Reply
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