[Note: This article is a brief excerpt from Chapter Two of my new book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age (link is to the book’s page on Amazon.com).]
There don’t seem to be any definitive statistics about how many meetings are held every day, but the estimates I have seen (and recalculated for myself) suggest that there are somewhere between eleven and twenty-four million corporate meetings a day in the United States alone. Even though that is a wide range, I am confident that there at least four billion meetings a year here in the U.S.!
However, as I am fond of saying, no one I know is dying for that next meeting to start.
Yet most people who work spend most of their time in meetings of one kind or another. Some studies claim that project team leaders and department managers typically spend between 40 percent and 60 percent of their work week in meetings. That amounts to well over 20 hours a week – not counting the time they spend preparing for those meetings or writing up post-meeting reports.
As Alan Webber, former editor of the Harvard Business Review and co-founder of Fast Company observed over twenty years ago, conversation is at the heart of knowledge-based work. It’s how we exchange information, solve problems, test our ideas, create new knowledge, and connect with our colleagues and customers.
If we spend so many working hours in meetings of one kind or another, why do so many of them turn out so badly? I believe there are at least five factors affecting the quality of your meeting experiences:
1. We are already swimming in a sea of information
Meetings have served traditionally as an efficient means of sharing consistent information with a group of people who need to know. A team leader calls everyone into a conference room to report news to the group or to ask the participants to share project updates.
Yet digital technology today provides most of that kind of information more quickly and more accurately, and in formats that can be fine-tuned to individual needs. Whether it’s email, Twitter, Jabber, Yammer, Slack, instant messaging, or project status websites, everyone who needs to know what’s going on can get updates while sitting at their workstations, or on mobile devices no matter where they are.
Stopping everything else to sit in a closed conference room for an hour or more just doesn’t make the same kind of sense it used to.
2. It’s too easy to call meetings – and there is little accountability for results
It’s just too easy for a team or department leader to schedule a meeting. And hardly anyone publishes a formal agenda or a statement of desired outcomes in advance of a meeting. As someone pointed out recently, most of us have a corporate expense authorization limit (typically $500 or $1000 unless you are reasonably high up in the hierarchy), but just about anyone can call a meeting with 5-10 people at a combined salary cost that is much higher.
3. Many meeting leaders don’t define their purpose or the desired process clearly
There are many different reasons for calling a meeting; and the appropriate conversation process varies dramatically depending on the meeting’s purpose and desired outcomes. An informational meeting should unfold differently from a decision-making meeting, which in turn is different from a creative brainstorming meeting. Yet all too often participants arrive at the meeting without any understanding of the agenda, the intended process, or the desired outcomes.
4. Most organizational cultures discourage candid conversation
When meetings are fun, respectful, and engaging the participants are curious, exploring ideas, listening actively, learning new and meaningful ideas, and often constructively challenging each other. But in many organizations today the dominant behavioral norms discourage even mild disagreements.
One of the biggest enemies of meaningful meetings is the tendency towards groupthink and an unwillingness to engage in any active discourse. Challenging someone’s idea, or offering alternative approaches, means taking responsibility for conflict and change, and that can be stressful.
5. Many of us are not effective listeners and learners
The high levels of stress and overwork that affect so many of us these days make it genuinely difficult to hear ideas or arguments that run counter to our own experience and preferences. New ideas, or ideas that might complicate our own work, are hard to absorb. So we tend to shut them out, or at least dismiss them as not important or not doable.
Do these five factors make sense to you? What have I missed? Please comment below to share your own experience, and to contribute to my continuing research on making meetings matter.
I am pleased to announce that last week Dr. Jac Fitz-Enz, a true pioneer in HR measurement and management, published a wide-ranging interview with me, primarily about why I wrote Making Meetings Matter and the role meetings play in the digital age. Click here to read the interview.
Note: The book is now available for purchase on Amazon.com, at http://amzn.to/1SKV1Rp. Please follow this link to visit the book’s website, where you can sign up for free tips and techniques for making meetings matter, connect with other readers, place discounted quantity orders, and contribute to my ongoing research about what makes for a good conversation. And of course you can also click through from there to order a paperback copy from Amazon (the Kindle version will be up in another week or so).
Contact me today for a free 30-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and other corporate conversations both productive and popular. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.