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Meetings: How Can We Make Them Better?

Imagine yourself sitting in a meeting, hearing a colleague drone on about some detailed topic that you don’t really care to know about,.

The meeting is beyond the agenda that you thought would be covered, and the meeting is running over the time you planned to use to accomplish a task that requires your full attention and has a deadline.

How pleasant is that? How productive?

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Meetings are a part of life. There are millions of them. According to the online media provider Fuze, more than 65% of meetings are failures, costing organizations $37 Billion per year1. People say “They’re boring. They’re useless. Everyone hates them. So why can’t we stop having meetings?”2

Why are they useless and boring? Does everyone hate them? Why? How can we make them better?

Who Goes to Meetings

Paul Graham’s perspective on meetings involves a split between managers and makers. He views meetings as useful, saying that Managers require meetings to do their jobs. “But there are Makers too – poetic souls whose well-being can be shattered by an ill-timed “sync,” … They require “Maker hours” – long unspoiled afternoons … rich, solitary, germinative time. … Makers flourish in four-hour long stretches, which absolutely must … be kept unblemished by meetings.”3

Being both a manager and a “Maker” I can relate to and accept that perspective. Solid solitary time for creating and relieving stress is a critical success factor. So are the right meetings at the right times.

If we include work sessions in which two or people collaborate, there is another class of player that the Manager/Maker model leaves out – the analyst/designer who by the nature of their jobs must combine meeting time and “Maker” time. The analysts and designers have meetings for the purpose of accomplishing creative work in groups rather than meetings in which managers initiate, plan, prioritize and monitor. Analysts need to meet with subject matter experts, designers, and developers. Designers and problem solvers co-create, validate and present solutions in meetings. Analysts and designers also need “Maker” time to complete their work.

In addition, there are meetings which cut across the Manager-Maker-Analyst-Designer spectrum. These meetings are forums for raising and addressing administrative and interpersonal process issues. These are often the most difficult to arrange and manage and can be the most valuable.

Are Meetings Really Useless?

Are meetings useless? Some are, and some aren’t. Useful meetings resolve issues, keep people abreast of what is going on, do things that require collaboration and promote healthy teamwork.

There are also useless meetings.

A meeting is like a project; it is useful if it achieves the meeting’s objectives. If the objectives are to inform people of a project’s status and issues and to promote group ownership of the project, then there is success if people come away knowing what’s going on and they have a sense of being on the same team. If the objective of another meeting is to make decisions about a business process or system function, then the measure of success is a clear, written statement of the decision or the open issues. If the meeting wasn’t useful in achieving some business related or project related goal then, even if the meeting’s objectives were met the meeting was a waste of time, a failure.

Why are meetings boring?

Are meetings boring? Some are, and some aren’t. The boring ones are the ones that are not meaningful to you, where you don’t care about the content and where you are not paying attention.

If attendees are the right people, and they know why they are there and what is expected of them, that stimulates interest and motivates the attention that defeats boredom. Make sure you facilitate to stop long-winded detours into the weeds when the meeting is about the bigger picture.

If you do get invited to a meeting that you have no interest in and you can’t opt out, you can make the best of it by being mindfully aware of what is going on, including your boredom. In other words, make yourself interested in the meeting, as if you were going to be tested on the content and asked to critic the way the meeting was held. If you can, informally and subtly facilitate to avoid the causes of boredom.

Why does everyone hate them?

Does everyone hate meetings? Some do, and some don’t. Most people hate being bored and wasting their time in useless meetings. They hate meetings that interrupt and keep them from doing their “maker” work on schedule.

The Causes of Useless, Boring Meetings

Everything has a cause. Finding the cause is a critical step to finding a solution.

Why are so many meetings failures? Here are some common causes.

  • Lack of clear objectives, agenda and expected time per topic
  • Not sticking to the agenda
  • The wrong participants
  • Unprepared participants
  • Multi-tasking and otherwise being disengaged
  • One or a few people monopolizing the meeting
  • Lack of a written recap or minutes
  • Tantrums, tirades and other emotional outbursts

Can you think of others? If you can send them in and we can add them to the list.

How can we make them better?

To make them better overcome the causes of useless, boring and meaningless meetings. If you organize meetings:

  • Make sure they are aligned with organizational and project goals to accomplish something meaningful.
  • Clearly state the agenda and objectives.
  • Invite the right people and let them know what is expected of them.
  • Set and stick to a reasonable duration that matches the agenda.
  • Facilitate so that one or two people do not monopolize and so that the meeting stays on topic and at the right level of detail.
  • Arrange a suitable and comfortable meeting environment, whether virtual or physical
  • Recap regularly.
  • Ensure that there are minutes to document the meeting and a plan to act on decisions and address open issues.
  • Have a little fun, or, at least, don’t make the meeting an unpleasant chore.
  • Evaluate your meetings from time to time to see if they are good ones and if they are getting better.

As an individual attendee, take responsibility for paying attention and making the best of it even if you think the meeting is a total waste of your time and you cannot escape. Given the choice between sitting there bored and fuming or mindfully paying attention so that you are using the time and experience productively, why would you choose bored and fuming?

[2]NY Times Magazine Feb 28, 2016, “Meet is Murder” by Virginia Heffernan, p. 29
[3]NY Times Magazine Feb 28, 2016, “Meet is Murder” by Virginia Heffernan, p.30

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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