21st October 2020

Flexible Working not Working? Meetings are not the problem

I recently posted an article about the COVID generated phenomenon  where many people who, in working from home, now find themselves trapped in a cycle of back to back meetings all day then having to do email and other stuff well into the evening. Not what flexible and remote working was supposed to be all about!

I wanted to make something clear, to set the record straight. Based on conversations with a few readers, I may have given the impression that we should aspire to get rid of meetings or have fewer of them.

That’s not what I was intending, implying, inferring, or otherwise suggesting.

Meetings are not the problem.

To be clear, it’s not about fewer meetings because meetings serve a purpose. Meetings are necessary. And, given humans are herd animals there is something life affirming about being in the company of other people.

Having meetings is not the problem.

The problem is us and our ability to work effectively and productively in meetings. To have a successful meeting you need to have a successful meeting technique. In all physical endeavour from chopping wood to playing sport a lack of technique means energy is wasted, things take longer than they should, and ultimately the endeavour becomes frustrating.

If the team is not functioning right. Or if accountability and decision-making responsibilities are not clear. If managers don’t trust their team members. And if team members refuse to take accountability, having fewer meetings won’t solve anything.

The key is to improve meetings. As Patrick Lencioni says in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, ‘meetings should be at least as interesting as movies’.

The good news?  There is a big opportunity here for leaders and organisations.

Think of the total number of hours every employee in your organisation spends in meetings. It’s a scary number, right?

Time is a resource. Time has value. Wasting time is as bad as wasting money.

Imagine how much more productive your people would be, your organisation would be, how much value you could create, if you made your meetings even 10% more productive.

The Fix

From my perspective, apart from biscuits, a meeting must have the following:

  • A purpose. Whether it is a regular scheduled meeting or set up for an ad hoc reason, every participant must know WHY this meeting exists
  • A decision or decisions to be made. If there’s no decision to be made call the gathering for what it is, a briefing, a review, a brainstorming session. Change your language to make meetings about decisions.
  • An understanding of the options to consider or explore in making the decision. There should also be an understanding of how any conflicting points of view of the team members or meeting participants will be resolved in the meeting. Conflict is both natural and necessary in teams, though most teams don’t have the trust, courage or skill to leverage conflicting viewpoints.
  • An understanding of the role of each team member and or each participant in the meeting plays in the consideration of and the making of the decision.
  • Collective commitment to the decision(s). There’s not commitment to a decision if, following the meeting, there are ‘hands from the grave’ (gratuitous spooky Halloween metaphor). Another thing, when it comes to meetings, consensus is a nice to have but commitment eats consensus for lunch.

Sounds simple but as I keep saying, ‘simple ain’t easy’. Most organisations find it difficult to develop discipline around meetings. How about yours?

Justin Miles

Justin Miles

Manager Partner, Melbourne at Generator Talent
Justin is the Managing Partner of our Melbourne office, an outcome focused leader with a track record of driving business performance through proven talent and organisation development practices. Justin’s methods and skills have been shaped by working with performance oriented leaders in great companies including PepsiCo, The Campbell Soup Company, Diageo, Rip Curl, Fonterra and Wesfarmers, in Australia, the USA and Latin America.
Justin Miles

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