Introduction

We’re all having too many meetings. And we know it. Over the last few years there have been many articles and blogs published bemoaning the fact that we have too many meetings, we’re wasting time in meetings, meetings are almost pointless, perhaps they’ve taken on a life of their own and are self-replicating, and so on. However, one issue about meetings that has lately slapped me in the face is that not only do we have too many pointless meetings, but we’re not even meeting with the right people.

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An All-Too-Common Scenario

Consider this scenario (perhaps it’s happened to you … it has to me):

Setting: Company IDK is rolling out a change initiative aimed at improving the innovation skills at the company and one component of the initiative includes a formal face-to-face training class. Each week the training lead and one member of her team meets with the program team, ostensibly to let them know the status of the training development and roll out plan so they can coordinate other program efforts. However, the meeting scope has crept way beyond the original plan. Managers have increased their collaborative work by 50%, without taking anything away (https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload). The program team, despite complaining about how busy they each are, all attend each weekly check-in meeting and consists of six change management consultants (the project manager, the program manager, a change consultant, a communications specialist, the executive over development services (who is actually not present, but always accepts the meeting), and a project coordinator) and they’ve asked that the meeting be extended from a quick 30-minute check-in to a 90-minute detailed status update, review, and brainstorming session. Let’s eavesdrop on part of the conversation:

Anabel (training lead): [attending the meeting virtually from her home office a few states away] And so now we have a plan to give out small rewards for people in class that answer the quiz activity questions correctly.

Mike (change consultant): What are you giving to everyone else?

Anabel: Nothing. This is just a fun way to quickly reward those who answer the questions.

Mike: Well, if it was me in the class and I saw someone else get a reward, I would be totally put off unless I got one too.

Sheryl (program manager): I agree. What can we give to everyone else?

Anabel: Well, since these are adult learners, I think they’ll appreciate the fact that only those who answer correctly are rewarded …

Sam (change consultant): [cutting off Anabel before she completes her thought] Can’t we just give everyone a water bottle, or something cool with the program logo on it?

Anabel: At the start of this development, we agreed that we wanted to use only a small portion of the budget …

Sheryl: We should ask Heather what she wants us to do.

Anabel: I disagree. Heather isn’t here and probably trusts us to use our expertise to make a decision like this, especially this late in the game  …

Dale (project coordinator): [Interrupting Anabel] I’ll make a note in the agenda that Anabel will put together a proposal for some options of items we can give away to all participants and will send that to Heather and then get back to us with what Heather decides Anabel should do.

Tom (communications specialist): Anabel, why don’t you draft the email you plan to send to Heather and then send the draft to the rest of us so we can give you feedback on the message.

Dale: And in the proposal, make sure you include cost projections for each of the options … how many options do you think Anabel should come up with?

Mike: At least three or four, right?

Tom: and make sure you send the proposal to everyone in this group for feedback before it goes to Heather.

Sheryl: we should give Anabel a deadline.

Dale: OK, so in the notes I’ve got Anabel drafting a proposal for the giveaways, sending that to the team for feedback and then implementing the feedback; drafting an email to Heather and then sending that to the team for feedback; and then once she’s done all of that sending it to Heather to ask her what she wants to do. Anabel, do you want me to schedule that meeting with Heather? I’ll invite all of us to it. With how packed our calendars are, we might not be able to get together all again for a few weeks and we can’t spare any time in this same meeting next week … blah, blah, blah.

Has that ever happened to you? If you think it hasn’t … you’re probably wrong. (#nooffense.) I’m sure many people reading this will agree that meetings like that happen all too often.

Why Do We Have This Problem?

Too many people involved in meetings and trying to collaborate happen for a number of reasons. Below outlines the six most common reasons:

  • I’ve written about this before, but this problem indicates a serious lack of trust horizontally within and across teams as well as a vertically from the top down. Lack of trust — vertically and horizontally.
  • People are either openly or implicitly rewarded for appearing busy but not for actual results or outcomes. Accomplishing results — either positive or negative — are often not what employers are rewarding. Almost every time I ask a client “how are you?” the answer is immediately some iteration of “I’m so busy.” As if that’s a novel thing for people to be busy at work! Instead, acting busy, talking a big game, and having as many meetings as possible is rewarded. At one company I worked with a mid-level manager was consistently rated above target in his performance reviews despite never actually accomplishing anything because he was constantly busy … or at least acting and talking like he was busy, and convincing his manager of just how terribly busy he was. But none of his peers wanted to work with him because they knew anything they started with him would end up as a black hole into which their work and time would be pulled and in the end, they’d have nothing to show for it except for a long list of deliverables he’d asked them to complete so that he could manage the project “without getting lost in the weeds.”
  • There is often a general sense that a 24/7 worker is the best. In the Harvard Business Review June 2016 edition, authors Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan note that employees, in an attempt to satisfy the ever increase workload demands they face, “arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends, and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable—or unwilling—to respond typically get penalized.” But the results — all negative — are burning employees out and causing more and more disengagement.
  • Inefficiency becomes a real problem in situations like this. It’s slightly flippant, but the clip from the television series “The Office” below shows a manager who is judging an employ, not based on the results of work, but instead on how long it takes him to complete his work — seat time. This is a failure of leadership, where leaders only acknowledge work that is done when it’s done under the direct and physical oversight of the leader in a formal office setting.
  • Without clear organizational expectations, it is often confusing to employees and team just where their role ends, what part they’re supposed to play, and how teams should work together. Without clear expectations, we end up like the scenario — a room full of people giving feedback and ideas but only one person actually accountable, responsible, or even able to walk away from the meeting with any action items.
  • And then there is the general apathy of many people to take risks, responsibility, or make decisions. In his book The Myths of Creativity, David Burkus refers to these types of people as “codependent narcissists.”

Why We Need a Solution

We need a solution to this problem for a number of reasons:

  1. Too many meetings, and often over-collaboration, is burning people out. The authors of the article Collaborative Overload in Harvard Business Review note that the performance of those who are called on to collaborate too often risk poor performance and burnout. So, while our best employees are being over-taxed by a drive for more collaboration, leading to more meetings, our business suffers as a result.
  2. Companies with cultures that drive more and more meetings are falling behind the competition. Instead of spending time on product development, consistent incremental and sustaining innovations, employees are being ground down by an overload of bureaucratic meetings.
  3. And with employee moral and engagement, good ideas are being lost in a cacophony of misguided collaboration. Those voices from people who don’t need to be collaborating and who might be weighing down the progress in meetings often dissolves great ideas until they’re so diluted that they’re no longer relevant.

 

What is the Solution

Leadership. Leadership is the primary antidote to this problem. Leaders set the tone and can influence — for good or bad — the volume of meetings and those attending. When I have client meetings, my general rule is to have no more than one or two people from my team attend. Perhaps, for required expertise, I’ll have two attend meetings. But beyond that it becomes a waste of time.

We also need to take back over our schedules. Look back over the last three or four months of your work. What tasks could have gone undone? There are probably at least a handful of tasks that could or should have been done by someone else. Don’t do them again. We’ve allowed people too much insight into our calendars which results in them filling our open time with meetings. Block our your days and weeks, allowing certain time for meetings but the rest of your time to complete real work and tasks. A few blocks are to answer email and phone calls. Some of that time, everyday, is for quiet reflection on the day.

This is a fixable problem, and one with tremendous ROI. Leave your comments below — I’m interested to hear what you think.

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