How much time do you think the average person in your organization spends talking about past events? How many hours in a week do you find yourself in meetings where you are rehashing past events, and no one walks out of the meeting with any action plans on how to learn from the past and work more efficiently in the future? If you have been in any meetings like this, then you know exactly what I am talking about. These meetings can zap the energy right out of you. When I walk out of a meeting like that, where I feel like the last hour (or worse, 2 hours) was unproductive, it really gets me frustrated. There is value in reviewing the details of an event to determine what went well, what did not go well, and where we can improve.
In some of the organizations I have worked for in the past, we call those retrospects. Some call them post mortems, but that sounds a bit too negative to me. The purpose of retrospect is to come out of the meeting with an action plan for improvement. Retrospect meetings add value, whereas a meeting to review a list of problems or events with no one accountable for action when the meeting ends, does not add value. The next time you are in a meeting like this, add up (in your head) the cost of the meeting. Think about how many dollars in salaries are sitting around the table, how many hours of lost productivity, and the intangible cost that is generated from low morale. As a leader, we should not allow this type of behavior to go on. We should work to bring a change in the way people are thinking.
One of the facts of business life is that the higher you climb on the proverbial ladder, the less time you spend hands on problem solving and the more time you spend in meetings discussing the problems (and hopefully solutions). Somewhere along this journey we can start to confuse meetings with getting work done. This came to light for me when my prior CEO challenged her direct reports with this thinking; she was new to the organization, and in her first 2 weeks, she perused our calendars and saw how many hours each day we were all spending in meetings. She made this declarative statement to us all, “Either this organization gets work done in meetings or the organization is not getting any work done.” In which we all replied that very little work gets done in meetings and we all scramble for time between meetings to actually “get things done.”
That being the case, she started us all on a journey to reduce the total number of meetings, making the needed meetings more productive, and to ensure that each meeting had an objective. David Grady did a TEDTalk called ‘How to save the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings,’ in which he used humor to remind us that right next to the Accept button in our email calendar system is the Decline button. We do not have to automatically accept every meeting sent to us. Furthermore, we should never accept a meeting invite where there is no agenda attached. Grady is quoted as saying “An epidemic of bad, inefficient, overcrowded meetings is plaguing the world’s businesses — and making workers miserable.” I concur.
This leads me back to my original questions: how much time are we spending in meetings rehashing the past with no focus on improving the future, and as a leader, how do we bring about a change in this behavior? I have a few suggestions that I think could have a radical impact on the organizations we work for and on our personal work day experiences.
- If the meeting objective is not clear from the start, ask the clarifying question: “So that I may help you achieve your goal, what is the objective of this meeting?”
- Be a barometer during the meeting; if the facilitator is not keeping the meeting on target to meet the objective, politely remind the attendees of the meeting objective and guide the conversation back.
- Do not zone out. Zoning out in the meeting only enables the behavior to continue. Stay present (no matter how painful).
- Lastly, every meeting you facilitate should be a model of how meetings should be run. Always clearly explain the purpose of the meeting in the invite, attach an agenda, start on time and end on time.
It is much easier to just grumble about how out of control our day was and how much time we spent running from meeting to meeting. However, as a leader, I am accountable for adding value to the organization. Sometimes that means challenging the value of a meeting or even declining to attend. One of the most profound things Grady says in his talk is actually a perfect thought to end this post with.
“People just might start to change their behavior just because you changed yours.” – David Grady, Information Security Manager