Build or burn?

I’m in a meeting

The first time I said the words, ‘I’m in a meeting’ my fiancé, who had just phoned, burst out laughing.  In three years training as an accountant I never once attended a meeting but, in only the second week of a new job as a financial accountant, here I was.  I thought I sounded grown-up but my (now) wife thought I was hilarious.

Plenty of people think meetings are bad, to be discouraged and a waste of time.  Some even advocate making a meeting physically uncomfortable to encourage brevity.  Nah!  I love meetings.  Progress in business is achieved through meetings.  And I say this having sat through my fair share of the aimless, low-energy affairs that achieved nothing.  There is undoubtedly a species of meeting which seems to continue out of habit or because the participants feel they ought to.  These might politely be called an ‘information-sharing’ category of meeting.  But you try managing a change of any significance without holding a meeting.

Project work in particular is impossible without meetings.  There’s the ‘so, what are we going to do’ meeting, which is the open and exploratory, where issues are aired, plans hatched and tactics agreed. With the right people, these are great fun because they can go long distances off-piste.  A great deal of this type of business can be done over dinner with some good wine.  Then there’s the ‘how are we going to get it done‘ type of problem-solving or progress monitoring meeting which is where the heavy lifting of the project is done and decisions made.  Finally there is the ‘why the hell hasn’t this been done yet’, type of meeting where people are held to account and air cleared.  Although not pleasant it is sometimes necessary that some blood is left on the walls after these lively affairs.  Often all three of these types of meeting can occur within a single agenda!

If you are in a management role, you can add to this list the team-building type of meeting.  This is like the information-sharing meeting only more fun.  At best, these are a thinly disguised opportunity to gossip and have a laugh.  They are vulnerable to becoming the sort of ‘vanity’ meeting of a powerful leader, but if the leader is good they’ll use the opportunity these meetings present to subtly shift values, influence behaviour and encourage candid communication within the team.

It’s video conferencing I hate.  Management is a contact sport.  People outside your direct control never do what you want them to do at the pace you want them to do it.  Building good relationships and alliances is the best way to counter this effect.  Without face to face contact, your ability to do this is severely curtailed.

The cherry on the top of all of this is that meetings are great places to learn.  The stories I tell most often have been picked up from colleagues during that time just before a meeting starts when people are gathering.  There’s always someone who’s arrived early and is sitting sharing a pet theory to anyone who will listen. Why would you hate any of this?

The one common mistake people make arranging meetings is to schedule them along typical calendar lines such as weekly, monthly or quarterly.  I find this calendar-driven tempo is usually inappropriate.  In the classic monthly meeting, it’s often too soon after the last meeting for the actions to be done before the next one.  In these cases I prefer to vary cycle of meetings to suit the nature of the business.

A classic of the kind is a weekly one-to-one between boss and subordinate.  I recall an HR consultant telling me this is best practice.  I can’t see it.  If I need to discuss something with my client / boss, I typically want to do it then and there.  By the time of the next weekly meeting, the issue will no doubt have had to be dealt with or, if still live, the discussion lacks energy for want of immediacy.  Too often I’ve rolled up to such meetings having spent three minutes jotting anything that comes to mind at the time, and my boss gives me every impression of having done the same.

It is true that ‘work’ is generally a solo activity and so, strictly speaking, all meetings are unproductive, but it’s meetings that determine what ‘work’ gets done in the first place.

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