Meeting is such sweet sorrow

Is there another activity that occupies so much of our time which gives us as much grief as the meeting?

Let’s try some adjectives: frustrating, time-consuming, unproductive.

Let’s look at the obvious weaknesses of so many of the meetings we attend: too many of them every day / every week, too many people around the table, too many items on the agenda, too adversarial, too inconclusive, too badly run.

Once you start struggling with back to back meetings, you know it’s time to do it differently. No-one works well when half their brain is spinning from the meeting before, and the other half is focusing on the one to follow. And when the arguing round the table outweighs the agreeing, you are right to question the wisdom of meeting the way we do.

So why don’t we, our colleagues or our companies do anything to make these meetings better? Largely, I believe, because individual meeting-goers feel powerless to change the system. And also because companies and meeting organisers don’t know how to innovate or reinvent the meeting.

That is exactly why having spent more than a quarter of a century in meetings with my AAI hat on, I have dedicated a great deal of the last six months to working on the Mote – the first revolution in meeting practice since the Levellers and the Putney Debates in 1647.

You see we want to meet. And we need to meet. People come together all the time. Some encounters are accidental, eg on a train, in a bus, on the tube, on a flight, shopping, in the street. Others are deliberate and planned, as when we socialise. Equally not all human encounters are meetings.

What can we learn from unstructured and chance encounters that will inform business meetings? For me the most significant truth is that we humans are particularly good at one-to-ones. The dynamic duo is the most potent and most effective combination. That’s why lunch works so well. Two people nearly always work well together because it is natural to deploy altruism, empathy and mutual interest.

We think before we speak.

We take the other’s point of view, sensibilities and capabilities into account. Meetings with just two people in the room can go faster and more energetically than a room full of the cleverest people in the building. That’s the principle of Mote.

Start lean. Add experts and specialists as you need them. Stand them down when you don’t. And finish lean with the decision in sight, and realisation of the project at hand.

A meeting conducted in the Mote style will work. It will be productive. It will be enjoyable. It will make meeting worthwhile.

Next year MOTE: The Super Meeting will be available to show you how. But meanwhile, break the stranglehold of big frustrating meetings. Dare to go for big decisions in small meetings. Let everyone enjoy the opportunity gain of less time in the meeting room, and more time to think and do proper work!

The busyness of business is a big problem

Are you busy?

After ‘how are you?’ it’s probably the commonest greeting these days. I guess we all want to be busy, and we want to be seen to be busy. So we encourage our business friends to tell us how busy they are too.

Being busy is obviously desirable economically (busy means money coming in), socially (no-one wants to be caught out watching daytime TV), and career-wise (difficult to move to a really busy job without a track record of being busy).

But let’s stop to think whether it is a really good idea to be busy. Or if being slightly busy or quite busy might not be better than very busy. Let’s look at what being very busy means:

  • Responsible job – hopefully salary or revenue to match
  • Doing well – promotion, or another company will want to hire you
  • Respect all round

So far all good. But are there downsides?

  • Work/life balance getting out of kilter
  • Difficult to prioritise at both work and home
  • Missing out on important aspects of life with family and friends – pressure on evenings, weekends, holiday times, relaxation, sleep
  • Possible threat to health
  • Not having time to think
  • Making mistakes through being rushed
  • Sitting in meeting after meeting

Now we are getting to something where we can take action. Meetings.

  • What percentage of our working week is spent in meetings?
  • Is that more than last year or three years ago?
  • How useful are the meetings I attend?
  • What would happen if I ruthlessly pruned my meeting schedule? How much time could I liberate – every day, week, and month? What would I be able to do with the time?
  • Work more?
  • Work better?
  • Think better and more?
  • Put more time into personal life and family/friends?

Sounding good, isn’t it? Maybe being very busy – for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people – is a reflection of the extent to which all our working lives are dominated by meetings. And that aspect of busyness is not rewarding (financially, socially or in terms of career). Nor is it likely to help the very organisation that presides over the meeting regime in which you are caught up – your company.

I am dedicated to helping to make meetings more effective and productive by publishing my book MOTE: The Super Meeting, which makes the case for a radical new approach. If we succeed in pruning the meeting tree, and giving it a giant haircut, I believe there will be many beneficiaries:

  • Companies whose directors, executives and managers will be freed up to do more actual work
  • Those same staff members who will be able to get their lives back in balance and work better and live more happily
  • Their families. The list goes on…

So what’s stopping us?

I’ll give you a couple of behavioural phenomena: Loss Aversion and Sunk Cost. Loss Aversion is the state of finding it difficult to give things up. Pundits call it FOMO (the fear of missing out). We are worried about what we might miss by not being at this meeting or that. Sunk Cost relates to the huge time investment we have made by attending hundreds of meetings. Does it make sense to stop now?

I give you another behavioural thought – taking control of your life. We know it would make sense to have the time to think better, work better and live better. If it’s only meetings standing in the way of freeing up that valuable time, let’s join the movement for fewer, better, more effective meetings with less people tied up in them. If time was as valuable as power sources – and it is – freeing up huge units of people’s time would be the equivalent of a massive conversion to sustainable and affordable energy.

We might agree that is an example not so much of behavioural economics as a well-attested theory among business academics – the capability of analogy to influence minds and inspire meaningful change.