Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The title is adapted from a quip made by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie about estate agents: ‘can’t live with them, can’t live with them’.
Meetings are a resilient institution despite their large-scale inefficacy and resentment-inducing reputation for time-wasting, box-ticking, and oxygen deprivation. A meeting is defined as ‘an assembly of people for a particular purpose, especially for formal discussion’. The widespread contempt for the format is that we regularly don’t achieve the purpose of a meeting, hence the common experience of ‘this meeting’s a waste of time; I could be executing my bloated to-do list’.
So, if they are largely unhelpful, why do we continue having so many meetings? Clearly there are instances where meetings are genuinely helpful for all participants. However, meetings are a key driver of stress and resentment in organisations and it is our collective responsibility to get better at this. As there are sufficient books and checklists for hosting better meetings, a health review for collaboration, information sharing, and ‘getting the job done’ may be more helpful? What we need is a mindfulness barometer to lead people and manage systems without assuming meetings are always required.
Many people spend significant parts of their days in back-to-back meetings. The more we meet, the less we execute. The less we execute, the more our inboxes and to-do lists amplify. The more these amplify, so does our stress. The more our stress amplifies, so does exhaustion and resentment. With greater exhaustion and resentment comes greater health issues and scope-creep with family and other (vital) non-work-related activities. Weekends are then used to execute work for the next week’s meetings. This is an unhealthy turnstile.
So, what are we going to do differently?
As we’re good at over-thinking and over-engineering, let’s keep it simple and remain mindful of ‘the third way’ (your way, my way, and a third way) to facilitate shared opinion and representation. We can establish the third way with our teams through questions like,
- ‘what does a helpful meeting look like?’ - ‘how can we stay informed and connected?’
Another complexity of meetings is that across the duration of a meeting, there will be ever-changing degrees of relevance for the participants based upon their remit, deliverables and levels of interest. Within this complexity, how does the most senior participant keep everyone engaged, and avoid a disproportionate influence on decisions or believing they have to talk the most because of their position? Could more one-on-one short duration huddles be more helpful than lengthy larger group meetings? Greater mindfulness brings greater efficacy to the conversations necessary to learn, connect and action. Equally, when there is a genuine urgency and a meeting is called, the requisite level of attention from all participants is more likely, because, if everything’s urgent, then nothing’s urgent.
Regardless of role or seniority, it is our responsibility to be on-purpose in meetings, and schedule ‘coffee chats’ and other less formal interactions if we simply want to connect and exchange ideas without the scaffolding and related expectations of an agenda and purpose.