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Syd Weighs In

Have you been a victim of meeting malpractice?

About the author

Sydney is a professor of strategy and leadership, and Dean for Executive Education,  at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the author of 16 books, including Why Smart Executives Fail. Follow him on twitter: @sydfinkelstein

Don’t be held prisoner by meeting malpractice (ThinkStock photo)

Don’t be held prisoner by meeting malpractice (ThinkStock photo)

With summer in full swing, our thoughts naturally turn to BBQ’s, beaches, and vacations. It’s the time of year when you can easily find yourself daydreaming when you should be paying attention. And then, as if in the middle of a nightmare, you realize you are seated around a table, listening to people you don’t really want to hear from saying things you don’t really need to know. Yes, you are in a meeting at work. And you can’t escape.

Is this the cruel fate all office dwellers must endure? The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, no! So many people are subject to what I call “meeting malpractice” that it’s a wonder the trial lawyers haven’t caught onto this one yet. The good news is that somewhere out there savvy managers refuse to play along, instead holding on to the quaint belief that meetings are opportunities for smart people to learn, debate and discuss — and for accountability to be assigned for actions and results.

So what is meeting malpractice? And what can we do about it?

Meeting malpractice usually starts before the meeting begins. The meeting request comes in with only the barest notion of its purpose. “Task force meeting,” “Team meeting,” and the classic, “Update.” But there is no agenda, no raison d'être, attached to justify this incursion in a busy workday. A meeting without an agenda is like a restaurant dinner without a menu. It’s true that a great chef’s creations can surprise and delight, but I’ve yet to see the same skill extend to managers in meetings.

Clear agendas have multiple benefits. You know what to do in advance to prepare, the meeting convener can rely on the agenda to keep the discussion from drifting into irrelevant territory and everyone knows when the meeting is done. Clear, concise and professional.

If there are controversies that will be disruptive, concessions that need to be extracted, or favours that need to be called in, the hard work of handling these demands should happen before the meeting. In all but brainstorming sessions, there is value in at least some choreography ahead of time.

Meeting “mal-practitioners” know none of this. They turn off their political antennas and are forced to rely on either brute force (which ensures minimal buy-in) or pleading (which ensures minimal respect) to reach some semblance of agreement. 

As important as preparation is to avoid meeting malpractice, the greatest meeting crimes are perpetrated when all participants are assembled. It starts at the beginning. The meeting is called for 09:00, but people drift in for a few minutes afterwards, chatting about what they watched on television the night before. Here’s a complicated solution: wear a watch … and use it!

Starting a meeting late (or finishing late, for that matter) is as good a measure of the lack of managerial discipline as any I’ve seen. It may take a few tries until people catch on, but they will — and even better, they will value starting on time because it provides certainty and conveys competence.

How you handle the first few minutes of a meeting also can be quite revealing. A manager, let’s call her Mary, is an expert in meeting malpractice. After waiting longer than she should to start, she launches into a lengthy discourse on something that is only tangentially related to the meeting topic. She allows herself to be interrupted by the Donald Trump of the team, the person who always believes he knows more than anyone else. She is somehow unaware of the knowing smiles and arched eyebrows that his co-workers display once Donald starts in on whatever his personal agenda is that day. The reaction is muted, however, since most people around the table are already checking email on their smart phones.

Effectively managing a meeting in real time is like being an ice hockey coach. The first tenet: make sure the right people are in the room (or on the ice) and that the wrong people aren’t. Give people short shifts by limiting airtime and ensuring you use your whole bench. Draw on specialized expertise inside and outside of the room during key moments (penalty kills). To win, everyone must contribute, not just the loudest person, the most senior person and the person you’re most comfortable with.

Among the most egregious offenses of meeting malpractice is letting time be taken up with presentation after presentation, leaving no room for real debate, discussion and decision-making. How many board meetings are run this way, almost as if the chief executive officer is trying to run out the clock? If you don’t ban PowerPoint slides, at least put a time limit on their use. Even better, expect people to review the slides and other informational material in advance so that face time can be dedicated to work that cannot be as effectively accomplished offline.

Finally, the meeting ends. What happens next? Can’t think of anything? Exactly. There is no other investment of time an organization regularly makes for which returns are less closely managed. Meetings must end with follow-up assignments or accountabilities, whether that is a call for more analysis or for executing on a decision. And those accountabilities should be delivered on time, not 19:30 on a Friday.

Avoiding meeting malpractice will not solve all of our problems in an era of tremendous globalization and technological disruption. But it’s a great way to start.

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A meeting without an agenda is like a restaurant dinner without a menu.

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