Meeting the challenge of meetings

4 min read
First Published: 
May 2008

A meeting, according to my dictionary, is an assembly of persons for a specific purpose. Perhaps a more whimsical definition might be that of an anonymous author who said that a meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.

Why is it, I wonder, that meetings have assumed such prevalence in the corporate world? Do they meet some social need? Do they provide an opportunity to strut one’s stuff in front of one’s peers?

Jim Buckmaster, the chief executive of Craigslist, the Internet classified advertising company, told the Financial Times recently: “I’ve always found them to be at best unproductive and boring, and at worst toxic and destructive. The people who want to show off, do; the brown nosers brown nose; everyone else wastes their time; I also think the larger the meeting, the worse it is.”

Are there ways of meeting the challenge of making meetings more productive, objective, briefer, and even enjoyable? Several formulas have their proponents: some have proposed that all meetings be conducted standing up; others have argued for rigid time limits, not only for the entire meeting but for each speaker; still others call for a stern – but respected – ringmaster to take charge and squash any grandstanding or waffling.

There are those who favour a ban Monday or Friday meetings, while the more sadistic suggest holding them only on Fridays at 4:15pm. And the more anarchic argue for simply walking out of meetings that seem irrelevant or unproductive.

And there’s the issue of where to hold the meeting. The boss’s office might be a place too intimidating or inhibiting; the conference room could present issues of who sits where; and the teleconference is surely just too impersonal and ethereal. Well, you could have an offsite meeting, sometimes called a retreat – a word that always struck me as inappropriate for an event designed to bring about any measure of progress. Although going out of the office does lend gravity to the proceedings.

So let’s look at some possible ways of meeting the challenge of meetings:

  • Productive: Limit the number of participants; have a clearcut agenda with equally transparent objectives, and a chairperson who will state that agenda at the outset, make sure everyone sticks to it, and at the conclusion summarise the decisions reached and who’s going to fulfil them.
  • Objective: Make sure everyone present is a tabula rasa… with no preconceived notions, or axes to grind.
  • Briefer: Limit the time to 60 minutes with no breaks and no distractions – cell phones, reading emails on Blackberries, surfing the web, food.
  • Enjoyable: Well, three out of four ain’t bad; although one might argue that this challenge might be met if the others are. And anyway, meetings can give rise to mordant, weltschmerz humour, as in ‘they called a meeting on apathy but nobody showed up;’ or ‘they called one on procrastination but everyone was late.’

We might even get away from the notion propounded by the eminent Canadian economist, John Kenneth Galbraith that “meetings are indispensable if you don’t want to get anything done.” Too dismal, John. There may be some good – and some to-do’s – to be wrested from meetings if they’re handled properly.

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David Woods
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