By Eric Brisbon

Take a few moments and reflect on how much time you spend in meetings.  I always enjoy hearing people complain about meetings. “How am I to get anything done with all these meetings! Can’t we do anything around here without having another meeting? Why has another meeting been called on the subject, we already discussed that!”  On and on it goes.  Ever notice, however, that everyone normally shows up for these meetings?  Many are even annoyed if they don’t get invited to a meeting.  They may have missed something or worse yet, their colleague may have new info or had a stage that they did not have.  Horrors!  I profess that one of the biggest impacts on productivity is meetings.

We are raised as professionals with meetings.  Since kindergarten we are trained to think in groups.  As we get older terms like synergy, collaboration, cooperation and efficiency(?) are professed to be a result of meetings.  I think it’s more primeval.  There is protection in groups.  It’s easier to hide in groups.  Groups give a natural ranking of the leaders vs followers.  Cave dwellers were just a precursor to modern day meetings. After all, how often do you hear the term ‘groupthink’.

Generationally I believe the problem on productivity is worsening.  There was a day that company management recognized the inherent productivity drain of a meeting.  A whole industry was born to address the need for more effective meetings.  Heck, I was taught in school how to run a meeting.  I think most of us were:

  • Have an agenda in advance (Isn’t that a course syllabus?)
  • Review Attendees list (Think most schools take a roll)
  • Stick to the topic at hand (Classrooms didn’t vary much on content)
  • Take notes (Those in school that didn’t take notes usually suffered)
  • Follow-up (Homework)
  • Result (Tests)

Many of us spent someplace between 12 to 16+ years practicing that, yet once in the workplace, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Unfortunately, there is more to the discussion.  Professionally, meetings serve a higher purpose. Intrinsically they allow people to ‘take charge’.  They provide a forum for rhetoric, ego fulfillment and expression of hidden agendas.  Meetings provide a bevy of excuses based on what was said and by whom, usually on items that can’t be substantiated as no minutes were issued.   Meetings abdicate responsibility. How often have you heard someone refer to a meeting as a decision point?

I recall attending a meeting years ago called by the CEO of a very large company.  About 60-70 people were in large conference room configured with a large oval table and a podium at the front.  All the people in attendance were professionals, mostly engineers.  The CEO called the meeting order and proceeded to lambast the crowd on how anyone could come to a meeting with nothing to write on.  How dare they waste his time and how could anyone think that nothing we would say was worthy of being written down!  Who the heck did they all think they were! (He used expletives).

Over half of the people in attendance had nothing in front of them.  They sauntered in a sat down to enjoy an afternoon break.  I was so thankful I was not one who came in empty handed.  I had something to write on and to this day I will not go to meeting without having the ability to take notes.  A lesson learned and never forgotten.

The digital age also changed meeting behavior, but not the nuances of time management.  When laptops first became popular, they were a bit of a status symbol in the workplace, especially as WIFI gained traction, and more and more people showed up to meetings with them.  Now I get it if you have a PowerPoint or something you need to present, but other than that they should be banned.   I can’t tell you how many meetings I have sat in with someone typing on a keyboard the whole time.  I have often thought they believe the message they are sending is how busy they are multitasking is a requirement.  I think if you can’t pay attention to the topics get out!  Also, most of the folks with laptops are surfing the internet or emailing their spouse.  Who do you think you are kidding?

All told, most people do not hold a good meeting.  I profess that 70% of what is expressed in a meeting is superfluous.  If you are lucky there is 30% that is good information and is providing value to your workspace.  Is the person holding the meeting working for you or working for themselves? Certain people run a very good meeting.  Other should never do it.

Without question meetings are a necessity.  It is unrealistic to think that all items can be completed without a certain number of meetings.  However, next time you are in a formal meeting ask yourself a few questions.  Was there an agenda published? Were minutes published?  If decisions were reached how was it documented, and do you know the plan for follow-up?  Do you take any notes? If the answer to any of those questions is no, the odds are very good a portion of your time was wasted.  Multiply that by all the other participants whose time was wasted, and you start to formulate a pretty good hit on productivity.

Meetings will be around forever.  The next time you have the need to call one or attend one, ask yourself if it’s the best use of your time or are there other, more obtrusive reasons for doing it.  If you get no positive self-answers to those questions you might want to rethink the meeting.