“Death by meetings”

meetings_graphic317Manuel stared blankly at his calendar.  It was a Wednesday, the middle day of the week in the middle of a typical month.  9:00am – meeting, 10:00am – meeting, 11:00am – meeting, 12:00pm –working lunch meeting, 1:00pm meeting, etc…  It was 8:37am and shortly Manuel was going to start another day that comprised of nothing but meetings.  According to his calendar, from 9:00am until 6:00pm he was in meetings without one break.  At this realization of another day lost and out of his control, Manuel should feel some level of anger or resentment but he numbed himself to that anger long ago.  As one of a handful of Directors of Information Technology at a University, Manuel had seen his role become more and more critical over the last 5 years.  Budget cuts combined with massive change in higher education made the need for increasingly better technology platforms a must.  On top of it all, it was a University.  Administration needed to be bought in – unanimously.  Faculty needed to be bought in – unanimously.  Staff and students didn’t seem to have much say, but they needed to be involved in the conversation anyway.  As a result, there were meetings.  Lots and lots of meetings.  One week Manuel estimated he spent over 42 hours in meetings This didn’t include all of his time spent preparing for the meetings and following up after meetings.  Manuel’s real work day was beginning to look more and more like one of his early IT jobs, 6:00pm to 12:00am.  If that wasn’t bad enough Manuel had a team of four managers and 30 support staff under them.  The only time he could coach and develop them was after 6:00pm.  That meant that they were staying late at work, away from their families, longer than should be necessary.  Family.  Manuel tried not to think of family this early in the week.  He needed to at least hold out until Thursday afternoon to let himself go there in his mind.  He bit his lip in an effort to distract himself.  His calendar came back into focus and Manuel suited up for another wasted day filled with meetings.

Meetings own a special place in my workplace dysfunction Hall of Fame.  They are the flagship exhibit at the end of the hallway set aside for “most common workplace dysfunctions that shouldn’t exist.”  Think of it as the workplace equivalent of the measles.  There are simple antidotes and inoculations, and yet, almost every organization is guilty of this pervasive dysfunction.  There is no damn good reason for it.  Unlike a dysfunctional boss or an unhealthy culture, meetings can be easily reworked, restructured and managed to prevent dysfunction.  This month, I’m loading you up with all of the booster shots, vitamins and antibiotics you can handle.  We’ll make sure we hit the following:

  • What’s the purpose or objective?  If you can’t articulate one, you shouldn’t call one.
  • Who should attend?  Meetings are NOT a party.  More is not merrier.
  • How long should the meeting be?  Meetings shouldn’t be marathons.
  • What are the ground rules for the meeting?  Gotta keep those emotional vampires in check.
  • What’s that post-meeting hygiene?  How are you gonna ensure that stuff actually gets done?

Simple enough, but I have yet to have attended a meeting run so well that I could check off all of those boxes.  Ridiculous.  We’re gonna change that starting today.  Just imagine living a world where meetings were all done right.  No wasted time.  No soap-boxing.  No pointless blather.  No fuzziness on why you’re there and what you need to do.  No politics.  No dysfunction.  I know, I know.  It sounds too good to be true.  But what option do we have?  Death by meetings?  No thank you.  

Here’s a teaser on what we’ll be covering this month.  Have a taste:


A note from Brandon

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4 replies
  1. Vicky Robinson says:

    Hi Brandon,

    I have recently created a small team with the objective of increasing the Depts compliance to a large number of regulatory quality standards and industry guidelines. There has been little movement on these issues in several years. I have proposed a monthly meeting where the keys issues will be highlighed, tasks discussed and allocated. After the second meeting I’m questioning whether I should alter the format. There are many key areas subject to inspection, I’m skimming over the areas of lesser concern to me and then focussing on problem areas. I do not want my meetings to follow the tired old meeting format, and in fairness to our meeting there was significant discussion within the team and several key tasks highlighted for urgent attention with agreed ways to move forward and deadlines agreed. A key member of the team requested that the meeting time be reduced. However, this is the only forum where the quality management approach is discussed, before this, there was no approach to quality. I explained at the start of the first meeting that the meeting would be an hour an half until we’d got a good grasp on the issues. Do I reduce the meeting length in order to maintain the attendance of this key person? The other team members will attend if he is expected, we are accoutable to him, however he is unaware of the work that is required to bring the Dept up to standard. So Brandon, how to make effective use of this meeting?
    Yours, Vicky

  2. Brandon Smith says:

    Hey Vicky,
    First let me apologies for the delay getting back to you. I somehow missed you note. Now, onto your question…

    I think a simple solution to your problems is to employ a “stoplight” document for every meeting. Just like a stoplight, projects / quality initiatives are laid out and then assigned a green color (“green light”) indicating they are on track, a yellow color (“yellow light”) indicating they are on shaky ground and a red color (“red light”) meaning they are definitively behind schedule and / or are a risk concern. The meeting is then spent primarily focusing on the yellow and red items. This is a common technique used in engineering and other large quality project management organizations. It reduces most meetings to 45 – 60min. I would also put the ownership of the color labeling and report out to the respective participants. What I’m also sensing is that your group is letting you set up the agendas, topics and discussions for every meeting. It is true you “lead” the meetings but they need to bring the status updates. They’ll have greater buy-in and accountability if you do so. Good luck and keep me posted!

  3. Vicky Robinson says:

    Hi Brandon,

    Thank you for your guidance and support which is much appreciated.

    I have now altered the approach to my meeting. I have introduced a ‘stoplight’ approach to all outstanding actions which on completion will result in quality improvements. The owners of the outstanding tasks proposed their colour and several areas of particular concern to me are now at ‘red’ status. All outstanding tasks are now clear for all to see and overdue completion dates apparent. This is already a noticeable improvement to the meeting. Marvellous!
    Yours, Vicky

  4. Brandon Smith says:

    I’m so impressed and proud of your efforts. Well done! You remind me of how the real challenge is taking an a concept and putting it into action but with effort, intentionality and openness, good things can happen. Well done!

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