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Avoiding the 7 Deadly Sins of Meetings
By James Sale

The new year beckons; and that reminds me of the two worst wastes of time that all businesses complain of: first, useless meetings, and second, endless emails! Let’s look at the first issue, since that is a problem we have more chance of doing something about; for let’s be frank – parting people from their emails is like separating them from their mobiles, which is to say their addiction, and this requires therapy rather than management.

There are seven deadly sins of meetings and each one of them is avoidable. The first and most obvious is that the meeting lacks a real purpose or – more practically – a necessity for occurring in the first place. In short, why are we having this meeting? This is an extension of what happens to us oftentimes as individuals: we get into habits, into grooves of behaviour which once served a purpose but no longer do so; somehow, however, we can’t break the fixation. We went out on a Friday night as a teenager to have a good time; it was good then, but now we are in our Thirties, and in my case in my Sixties, so it seems a little pointless!

The way to avoid pointless meetings, then, is to relentlessly ask the question: why are we having this meeting? What is it designed to achieved? What important outcomes will there be? If we can satisfy ourselves on these questions, then go ahead. But beware of one thing, and double check it in your own soul: you, being important, by chairing a meeting is not an important outcome. That’s ego and a waste of time.

Second, a chronic problem with many meetings is that too many people are invited to attend. The rationale for this is often the desire to be ‘democratic’, but being democratic is usually neither efficient nor effective. Many people simply need to be informed of decisions and outcomes, and would prefer anyway if others got on with their jobs and did so without involving them at every stage. Again, there is an ego-need sometimes from leaders – or rather weak leaders – who prefer to involve everybody as they then have the ultimate excuse if things go wrong – everyone was involved, weren’t they? But this is pathetic. To be effective we need to select only those people who are truly relevant to making the outcomes occur. Before a meeting, then, identify – make a list – who are those people? Invite only them.

Third, is a lack of or badly formulated agenda. This follows from lack of real purpose, and it is not just about the content. Critical too for an effective agenda is the ordering of the items and the space allowed for each. In terms of the ordering this is related to the Pareto Principle – with, say, five items on an agenda, two of them constitute a full 80% of the importance for the outcomes and for the meeting. But which two, and where are they situated in the running order? Typically, the two most important items come last in the order, and 80% of the available time is spent on the relative trivia of the first three points! Repairs to the wash facilities takes 90 minutes to discuss, and the marketing plan is covered in the last 15 minutes!! Thus, the question becomes: what is truly important in this meeting, and let’s prioritise it in the sequence and in terms of the time allotted to it.

The fourth problem – deadly sin – of meetings is that no time is allowed for preparation. This can be because meetings are either called on an impromptu basis: we have a problem, so call a meeting, or because they are scheduled in but there is no expectation that preparation is important; it’s just a ‘business as usual’ sort of attitude. The antidote for this is clear action points allocated to individuals from the preceding meeting, and an expectation generally that contributions are expected from everyone invited to attend. Note point two: only those who really count should be there, and if they really count then why aren’t they preparing?

The fifth deadly sin is poor time keeping. People hate meetings that overrun at any time, but especially those in the evening: scheduled to finish at 9.00 pm and still going on at 10.30. This wears the spirit down and also contributes to very poor decision making, since people are anxious to accept any decision or action simply so that the meeting will end. It is also linked to the bad agendas item we mentioned early: a good agenda is one that is carefully itemised and each item is given an appropriate time slot. This allocation is then jealously guarded – there has to be an overpowering reason to run over it.

Which leads to the sixth deadly sin: poor control by the Chair. Poor timekeeping is one aspect of it, as is poor agendas, and another of course is poor control of the delegates themselves: allowing sniping, negativity, quarrels, blame and general internecine warfare to flare up and manifest itself, as opposed to solving the problems the meeting has been called to deal with. There is no easy solution to a poor Chair, since often this is the boss. But if the boss is a poor chair, they need feedback on how they are doing. They also need training. Plus, rotating or alternating who chairs can also be a good idea, especially where the person most concerned with the outcome is given the opportunity to lead.

Finally, the seventh deadly sin is that having gone through all of this, and may be having had some illuminating and scintillating discussions that really have helped move things forward, yet the actions from the meeting remain unclear and unallocated to individuals. This then defeats the whole initial purpose and the purpose of the meeting. What actions need to happen now, and who is going to do them? If we can answer these two questions, then may be the meeting was worthwhile after all!

James Sale is an inspiring public speaker. He is the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps and other original people and management diagnostic tools. You can check James’ business here or you can call him directly at: +44 (0) 1202 513043.

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