MEETINGS: Stop, Look and Listen

A short story which most of us will recognise.
I awoke this morning feeling distinctly frustrated and annoyed, not how you want to start the day. Why did I feel like this first thing on a Monday morning, when I am about to start another week of work, in a job that I love, working with enthusiastic, innovative and energised people? I had been dreaming about a meeting – seriously.

Now, some of you may think, why on earth would a consultant, who attends hundreds of meetings each year, many of which she organises and/or facilitates, be annoyed about a meeting? Was this meeting unusual? No, it was a standard type of meeting which I had attended thousands of times as an employee. So, what wound me up so much?

My dream was that I was attending a meeting for an SME, probably a university spin-out. This meeting, however was being run in the same way that meetings were often run when I worked in the civil service, or for international companies.

There was an agenda and a start time – 9.00am on Monday, but only a couple of people arrived on time because most of the team worked from home, a long way from the meeting and had to battle hundreds of miles of traffic between them to get to the venue. As people arrived, they went to get a coffee, chatted about the weekend, and asked for updates about those still travelling. At9.30 the last person arrives (me) looking tired, stressed and dishevelled.I consider whether or not to sit down immediately but decide I really need a coffee, whilst getting a drink I am commiserated with about the traffic. The meeting starts 9.45.

Around the table are the whole management team, and the Manufacturing Supervisor (who has been asked to present a report). The meeting starts with an agreement of the minutes of the previous meeting, and apologies. Then the agenda items follow – exactly the same as all previous meetings except for the Supervisor’s report, which is the final item. Going around the table, the managers report on their teams’ activities and give reasons why the actions allocated at the last meeting, but due for completion in 3 months’ time haven’t started yet. Much of what is said is a repeat of the previous meeting. I am struggling to stay awake, and have edged my chair closer to the wall, in case of falling backwards (I had to get up at 4am and still arrived late, after a 1-hour tailback on the motorway). The room is warm, and I am starting to nod, as the person next to me nudges me hard and points to my section on the agenda. I have a vague recollection, that in addition to my usual report,I had something important to discuss, but can’t remember what it is.In my rush to get through the report and get to the comfort break, I decide whatever it was can wait to another time.
Comfort break, and in the toilets and hallways several members of the team talk in twos about some constructive changes, or frustrations, then all grab another coffee, and head back to the meeting (I trip over my own feet on the way and spill coffee down my shirt).

It’s now 11.45, the clock hands don’t appear to be moving as the Chair asks if everyone has read the 100-page report that was circulated two days earlier, without giving eye contact everyone mutters something that sounds vaguely affirmative. The Chair asks for comments and feedback, which is responded to with resounding silence, so creeping death commences with each member of the team be asked individually, gathering responses of “very informative”, “well written” and “I agree”.
The Chair then reminds everyone that the standard reporting form has changed, without explaining how, why, or where to find it, and then tells everyone that all reports must be completed and circulated 5 days before the next meeting.

Lunch. Sandwiches are brought in from a local shop by a member of the office staff. Everyone switches on their mobiles, most of them let out a loud sigh as they see the number of emails waiting for them. Two people nod apologetically as they step out of the room to make an important call. The meeting was due to restart at 2pm, but there has been a problem with logistics, and the manager responsible for transport can’t re-join the meeting until 2.15.

The manager responsible for purchasing raw materials reports for the fourth time in a row that there is a serious problem with the supply chain, the Logistics Managers and Purchasing Manager discuss at length for 30 minutes.

The final agenda item arrives. The Manufacturing Supervisor, full of enthusiasm, and seeing this as a real opportunity to shine in front of senior management, then presents the requested report in finite, complex and comprehensive detail. The Commercial Managers’ are very impressed with how clever the Manufacturing Supervisor is, and note down words to look up later.

The date of the next meeting is set (predictably) for the first Monday of the next month and everyone starts to chat again about families and hobbies, whilst the Chair talks in depth to one of the senior managers and the Head of Manufacturing congratulates the Manufacturing Supervisor. The meeting ends at 3.30pm, and everyone starts to wonder how long they must stay in the building before they can start to head home – I sneak out whilst no one is looking at 4pm, knowing that on a good day I might get home by 8pm.

Sound familiar?? Why was I annoyed?
After several years running a business and advising clients I saw:
• The most valuable assets of a company, with the highest unit cost by hour, travelling for several hours, to hear lots of reports which had already been circulated.
• If an individual manager hadn’t read the report, they weren’t being held accountable, but were being spoon fed.
• A whole day for a meeting, and an additional day for report writing and reading. 12 times per year equates to 24 days each year, out of an average annual number of working days of 260 – over 9%
• A supervisor had also spent a whole day at the meeting, to see senior managers disengaged and unmotivated.
• Nothing changed
• Nothing progressed.How could things have been run differently, before agreeing a meeting just asking some simple questions can make all the difference.
• What are the objective of the meeting?
• How are you going the measure that the objectives are met?
• Does the meeting really need to happen at all, or is it just habit?
• Could the meeting be conducted virtually, by Skype, or teleconference for example?
• Does everyone need to attend?
• Does everyone need to attend the whole meeting?
• If the meeting needs to be in person, is the time and venue suitable for attendees?
• Would it be more constructive to start later and allow more time for sleep and travel, so that people are psychologically better prepared to contribute?
• Could smaller groups or teams address particular problems, and then inform the main group?
• If a problem arises is there a system to address the problem internally, without waiting for a designated meeting?
• Can specific items be taken directly offline to address?
• Guests should be scheduled to address the beginning of a meeting, thanked, and given the opportunity to return to other work, or invited to join the meeting only for a relevant period.
• If the meeting doesn’t run to time, what is the plan? Tell the attendees (e.g. We will start at 10am, if for any reason you can’t get to the meeting on time, please inform X and we will start without you.)
• Is this a reasonable expectation? Everyone has a private life. If you are impinging significantly on someone’s private time, will they feel constructive and willing to contribute?
• If reports are lengthy, why is this necessary? Could they be less time-consuming, more interesting and impactful?

As a company we only hold internal meetings in person, when we happen to be at the same place at the same time, so make use of the time and money already invested in travelling. We conduct virtual meeting, at pre-agreed times of mutual convenience, with specific objectives, once the objective is met the meeting is closed. Not stressed, not annoyed and not sitting in tail-backs.