Meeting Malaise

By John Hollon

Nov. 13, 2007

I’ve never been a big fan of John Kenneth Galbraith, the late economist and Harvard professor, but he once said something I wholeheartedly agree with. “Meetings are indispensable,” Galbraith observed, “when you don’t want to do anything.”

    Thomas Sowell, the Stanford professor and conservative columnist, had an equally strong feeling about the usefulness of meetings—and the people who seem to thrive on attending them—when he said, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”

    As someone who has attended more than his fair share of meetings, I safely say that Sowell knows what he’s talking about.

    I can’t begin to tell you how many brain cells I’ve lost over my career attending senseless, wasteful, mind-numbing meetings. When I left one employer after more than 11 years on the job, I calculated that I had attended in excess of 11,000 meetings during my time there—and those were just the regularly scheduled ones that I could easily count. Add in special or unscheduled meetings, and I easily was up around 13,000 meetings in less than 12 years. Some were necessary, but many were futile and wasteful. I’d be surprised if more than 10 percent of them were truly productive.

    This all came to mind recently when I read a new survey by NFI Research that found that 57 percent of business leaders spend 21 percent to 60 percent of their time each week in internal meetings. Some 56 percent of the executives found half of their meetings to be productive, a stunning figure when you consider that these same executives considered the other half of the meetings they attended to be unproductive.

    “While meetings are a necessity of businesses, some organizations can tend to go overboard with internal gatherings, which can take away from a customer focus,” NFI chief executive Chuck Martin said in a press release that announced the survey findings. I hear what Chuck is saying, but I think he’s understating the issue. Structured, tightly focused meetings with a clear purpose and goal can serve a business purpose, but as the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once noted, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Meetings should never be confused with actually taking action and getting things accomplished. At best, they’re a road map to focus the participants on what needs to get done.

    Monty Python’s John Cleese made a funny motivational video about this—it’s called, appropriately enough, “Meetings, Bloody Meetings.” But embedded in the classic Cleese humor are some smart tips on how to make sure that meetings are effective and productive. For example: “Control the flow. Keep participants from jumping from one area to another. Keep participants on task.”

    I have a million stories about all those meetings to which I surrendered brain cells, but the one that sticks out most is when my brutish, tyrannical boss told me that the daily afternoon scheduling meeting I ran was TOO efficient and made TOO many decisions TOO early in the day. He took over running the meeting, and of course, he failed to make any real decisions on anything, procrastinating long into the evening and driving everyone crazy. His sterling decision-making abilities drove the company to “encourage” him to take “early retirement” a few years later.

    Wikipedia, the online do-it-yourself encyclopedia, makes an interesting point in its definition of a “meeting.” It says, “In organizations, meetings are an important vehicle for human communication. They are so common and pervasive in organizations, however, that many take them for granted and forget that, unless properly planned and executed, meetings can be a terrible waste of precious resources.”

    In other words, too many meetings can suck the life out of a workforce. Those who love to schedule lots of meetings would do well to
remember the words of the late, great management guru Peter Drucker: “Meetings are a symptom of a bad organization. The fewer meetings, the better.”

Workforce Management, November 5, 2007, p. 58Subscribe Now!

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