Why Meetings Fail

(This piece is a first in a three-part series on Meetings.)

As the nature of knowledge work has evolved from individual work (19th century) to collaborative work (20th century), meetings have become an essential tool for knowledge workers working in organizations in terms of getting projects completed.

The thing is that we as individuals know how we work. Over the years, we’ve acquired skills and the knowledge that makes us work. We know ourselves better than others understand us, but we never acquire the process skills needed to work in teams, which are an essential part of seeing projects through to completion. In college, they give you assignments to work in teams without teaching you the skills for the same, as if you’ll magically acquire those skills by working with others.

Knowing how to run meetings effectively is a crucial skill to master in making progress on your projects, completing your projects, and making the entire process as efficient and streamlined as possible. Basically, the idea is to let the meeting process determine the meeting outcome.

Meetings have gotten a bad rap, particularly in the post-industrial world. Unfortunately, in a lot of organizations, meetings are not run as effectively as they could be. The problem/issue is not “meetings” in and of itself, but how, why, and when the meetings are held. For example, meetings are often scheduled to keep everyone abreast of updates when a simple email would suffice.

Let’s see how a typical meeting works. The meeting is scheduled, and calendar invitations are sent. When team members show up, there is a tentative agenda, which is not clearly defined, and at best, vague. The first thing on the agenda is discussed, and then chaos ensues when a team member derails the discussion with another topic. And then, everybody randomly jumps in to give their input on the topic.

Some meetings only have start times and no end times. Whoever calls the meeting expects that it will go as long as it has to in order to resolve the given issue at hand, while everyone implicitly agrees without questioning. At the end of the meeting, there is no debrief. Action steps remain undefined. Nobody knows who’s doing what and by when. The fundamental problem in this and in most meetings is that there is no process involved.

Let’s consider another example. Let’s say you have a 1-hour meeting involving 10 people (and also put aside for a moment that there is something fundamentally wrong with having 10 people for a meeting, but more on that later). That 1-hour meeting translates to 10 hours of meeting time, which is time that those attendees could have used doing something else. Not to mention the switching costs (let’s say 5-7 hours) they incur by coming to the meeting and then returning back to work — not just physically, but mentally as well. This is not to say that you should avoid meetings, but be more cognizant of what happens when you’re calling a meeting and how that time is being spent.

There’re a few problems with how meetings are run today:

  • There is no process involved.
  • Meetings don’t always start on time.
  • Meeting end times are not always defined and honored.
  • There is no clear agenda defined, or the agenda doesn’t match the time constraint.
  • The meeting isn’t appropriate or needed.
  • Too many people invited to meetings.
  • Lack of adequate preparation before the meeting.
  • Meetings scheduled in increments of 30 or 60 minutes when a 10-minute duration could work just as well.
  • Members diverge and converge at the same time.
  • Ideas and Action steps are not captured and assigned appropriately.
  • Not enough time is spent on debrief/reflection/review.
  • Not tracking those steps in a system where everyone can see who’s responsible for what.

So far, we’ve seen how easy it is to plan and hold a meeting not worth anyone’s time, but where do you start when it’s time to improve the way you conduct meetings?

If you’re working in a team that regularly meets to work together on a long-term project, be sure to establish some kind of charter that explains what’s accepted and what’s not. Decide on it with a consensus. I can’t overstate how important this can be when working with others over an extended period of time.

I know from experience that meetings are a crucial part of design research work. Design research is collaborative in nature, so meetings are a necessary evil. Instead of dreading it, it was more productive for us to embrace it as quickly as possible. Because we were going to work on projects over several months, it was essential for us to establish a charter as a team to figure out the protocols/guidelines for everyone on the team. Think of it as a mission statement for an organization, only much more practical and action-oriented. This helps you be realistic in terms of setting expectations, and also makes it explicit.

The charter covers a few things among team members, which are mostly process-related: communication protocols, tools to be used, meetings, resolving conflicts, collaborative file sharing, etc. Basically, typical things that you would expect to have when things don’t go the way as planned. It is important to establish this at the outset.

What kind of things can go in the charter? Examples could include:

  • When to schedule meetings and when to send an email
  • What happens when team members are running late?
  • How to set up meetings
  • How to take turns facilitating
  • What about cell phone use?
  • Are computers to be permitted? What tools (if any) are to be used during the meetings?
  • How should the meetings start and end?
  • What are the individual team members’ strengths and how can team members complement each others’ strengths and compensate for each others’ weaknesses?
  • Always to err on the side of over-communication than lack of.

You get the idea…

This is how you would make a charter for your team. In designing your charter/tools for collaboration, you also need to review three primary process skills – deferring judgement, active divergence, and active convergence (more on that later). These are the fundamental skills for leading a meeting. These process skills include attitudes, behaviors and thinking skills. The key is to make them actionable in your team process.

In the next piece, I cover how and when meetings work, the process involved, and the process skills you need to run them effectively. I go into detail about the process involved, and what to do before, during, and after the meeting.

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