Meaningless Meetings: Stop the Pain

The anguish in the voice of an attendee as he stated ‘…. another meaningless meeting….  ‘ after a meeting made me wonder why we persist with meaningless meetings. In some respects, it appears that the pain of meaningless meetings is amplified particularly if the majority of the other work of attendees is considered meaningful.

What is a meaningless meeting?

Simply put a meeting can be considered as meaningless if meaningful interaction of proposed attendees is not required to achieve the intended outcomes.

Although it is probable that there might not be a universally accepted definition of meaningless meetings, it is likely that they would share some of the following characteristics:

  • Unclear purpose or intended outcome
  • Inappropriate attendees
  • Poorly conducted
  • Collective input is unnecessary
  • Inappropriate agenda
  • Overambitious goals

It seems to me that a key sign of a meaningless meeting is where the discussions at the meeting had no impact on the quality of decisions taken and in some situations led to sub-optimal decisions.

Why are meaningless meetings tolerated?

A key reason why firms struggle to eliminate meaningless meetings is the fact that meetings remain an important and necessary aspect of organisational life. The problem over time is that there has been the blurring of the distinction between meaningful and meaningless meetings and attendees sometimes struggle to recognise any difference and as such there is a tendency to lump all meetings into the ‘waste of time’ basket.

As long as collaboration is required for organisational success, meetings would continue to have a key role to harness the collective contribution of members of the organisation.

Regrettably, it is commonly perceived that attendance at meetings is a necessary evil that should be endured rather than a pleasant aspect of organisational life. Nevertheless, it appears that the attendance at meaningless meetings has become so habitual that despite their benign effect on organisational performance, they still persist.

 

Furthermore, the increasing preference to seek the comfort of collective decision making even though in some situations such as approach is not necessary tends to exacerbate the continued adoption of meaningless meetings.

Transforming meaningless meetings

Transforming meaningless meetings into meaningful meetings could bring significant benefits to a firm including the following:

  • Energise attendees for better productivity inspired by purposeful discussions
  • Foster stronger alignment with shared strategic priorities
  • Timely decisions on the issues that matter most
  • Leverage the appropriate diversity of thinking
  • Foster strong consensus that meetings promote the mutual exchange of valuable insights
  • Foster a continued strong sense of urgency to achieve a firm’s strategic objectives
  • Reinforce a stronger and clearer shared direction of travel
  • Build strong consensus on complex and sensitive issues

The starting point of implementing meaningful meetings should be ensuring that every meeting has a clear well-defined purpose, particularly if the intended purpose can only be effectively achieved through a meeting.

Three critical drivers of more meaningful meetings are as follows:

1. Clear Agenda

A clear agenda provides clarity on the scope of the meeting and should indicate the sequence /relevant priority of issues to be discussed in order to optimise the contribution of attendees. A clear agenda can also clarify the attendees whose attendance is essential.

A clear agenda serves as guard rails to keep the attendees from straying into the dangerous territory of unfocused and irrelevant discussions.

A clear agenda is the planned path that sets the direction of the meeting and facilitate a logical flow through agenda items.

2. Right Attendees

Having the right attendees at a meeting is critical and regularly asking the question with regard to whose attendance is absolutely necessary is a helpful discipline to ensure more meaningful meetings.

Providing the right attendees with sufficient time to prepare in advance of the meeting enables deep consideration and synthesis of a range of issues to underpin robust discussions.

A meaningful meeting in practice is usually a collection of stacked mini-meetings of different types with possibly diverse participants depending on the mix of agenda items.

3. Effective Chair

An effective chair is essential in order to facilitate a constructive, meaningful discussion and to avoid attendees regretting their attendance at the meeting.

An effective chair is able to maintain the delicate balance of extracting opinions from diverse attendees particularly the quieter ones while progressing through agenda items at an appropriate pace.

An effective chair would appropriately encourage healthy conflict and sensitively manage disagreements.

An effective chair also manages the flow of the meeting in accordance with the agreed agenda structure but with sufficient flexibility to appropriately harness the bouncing of ideas during the meeting.

An effective chair would facilitate each agenda item flexibly depending on the intended outcome so that an item requiring a decision may require a different approach to an item focused on generating a range of strategic options or gather ideas.

Time for change 

Now may be the time to stop the pain of meaningless meetings and aspire to implement more meaningful meetings which can help to clarify issues, refine strategic direction and progress delivery of strategic objectives.

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