Impractical and harmful advice
It has been my pleasure for thirty years to design and facilitate meetings in different sectors in different countries. My experience is that these events are engaging, stimulating and effective.
Strategies, project definitions, project reviews, public consultations, company mergers, change – all have resulted in significant improvements to the organisations and their staff.
Now I am asking: Why is it that so many meetings fail to achieve similar results?
A lot of advice on meetings exists, and it is not my purpose merely to add to this advice. I wish, in this first article of two, to point out where the advice is impractical.
In the second article, I will identify what I believe are the root causes. Then I suggest how these issues can be more effectively managed to make your meetings similarly engaging, stimulating and results oriented.
Advice on meetings
Literature and training courses have been hawking this advice on meetings for decades:
- circulate the agenda beforehand
- start on time
- finish on time
- have a time limit for each agenda item
- stop those who dominate
- keep the meeting on course.
You will find training courses such as Meetings basics, Making meetings work and Chairing meetings.
Or, you could be tempted by the Dynamic meeting skills course. Will this training produce dynamic meetings? Or, is it promising to make your personal meeting skills dynamic? Or, does the adjective “dynamic” refer to the meeting skills course itself? (If you don’t like having to think, don’t read my articles.)
People attend these courses because they believe they are good and they will learn something – you don’t need the intelligence of a tadpole to realise neither of these two beliefs stands up to scrutiny.
Because, if these practical, effective, stimulating and dynamic training courses were any good, why haven’t meetings improved in the previous decades? Why are we now not universally and fully engaged in vibrant and collaborative meetings?
First, let’s analyse some of the advice that I have just cited.
Typical meeting situations
Example one: circulate the agenda beforehand. Great. So what? How much effort is put in to designing a really effective agenda? When is it likely to be distributed? And how many people read it, and think about it, before attending?
Example two: start on time. You arrive at 9.50 for a 10.00 meeting and, as usual, no one is there. No one else arrives, as usual, until 10.10. How can you start when no one is there? And why are they late? Because the previous meeting overran?
And what if it’s the boss that regularly arrives late? “Sorry, sorry. Something important came up which I had to deal with.” We all nod – well done Boss, more important matters, it’s tough being a Big Cheese.
Example three: time limit agenda items and be firm on closing time. So, how do you stop an overrun when The Boss – the same Big Cheese – says “We must sort this out now. We are not leaving until we agree. Even if it takes all night.”
These guidelines may have the appearance of good suggestions but they just do not work in real meetings, with dominant individuals and live situations. This advice leaves people frustrated and disengaged. If it makes a difference, it seems to me that it makes matters worse.
Let me now quote for you an extract from a current book on management:
Take as an example a problem-solving committee meeting that includes the executive vice president at one end of the hierarchy and a new junior assistant at the other. If the assistant comes up with the brightest and most useful idea, some way must be found to accept it without lowering the status of the vice president in the eyes of the group, thereby threatening the group’s stability.
I won’t bother to analyse his chilling misguidance. But I will say that it reveals a deeply negative attitude and provides perilous advice.
The author shows as much insight into human behaviour as a shoelace.
The advice I mentioned earlier was impractical; this book is harmful.
So, what’s the answer?
Well, in my next article I analyse the root cause of what happens in meetings – specifically, two closely related factors:
- The Boss
- organisational culture.
And then I explore suggestions about how you can manage these factors to make your own meetings stimulating, engaging and results oriented.