Death by Meeting

meetingA friend of mine had a fishing boat that he’d named A MEETING. It was brilliant really. He could be out fishing and if anyone called, his wife could ‘honestly’ let them know that he was in a meeting and he’d be back later (hopefully with dinner)!

My kids used to think that my job was to go to meetings. Sometimes I thought that too! Staff meetings, council meetings, leaders meetings, training meetings, congregational meetings, one-to-one meetings, committee meetings, annual general meetings, budget meetings, planning meetings, review meetings, vision meetings, administration meetings, board meetings, boring meetings, way too many meetings! If you didn’t enjoy having to read the word ‘meeting’ 16 times in the previous sentence, then you’re probably like many of us who don’t like seeing the word appear that many times in our diaries. Surely life wasn’t meant to be an endless sequence of meetings. In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni writes:

While it is true that much of the time we currently spend in meetings is largely wasted, the solution is not to stop having meetings, but rather to make them better. Because when properly utilized, meetings are actually time savers.  (p250)

In my line of work, I couldn’t see a way around having meetings, so I was a prime target for this book. I read it and I wasn’t disappointed! Death by Meeting is another ‘Leadership Fable’ in the same vein as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It hooks in the reader with a great story, making the book easy to devour, and finishes with a summary section that ties together all the main points.

Lencioni argues that there are two main reasons we don’t like meetings. Firstly, meetings are boring, tedious, unengaging and dry. Does this resonate with anyone?! Busy people forced to sit through boring meetings is a recipe for pain. Secondly, meetings are ineffective. Sometimes it’s impossible to see how they contribute to our organisations. All they seem to achieve is tying up people’s time and breeding resentment. I’m sure you know what he’s saying!

Problem #1: Lack of Drama

Lencioni brings his experience as a student of screenwriting to the topic of meetings. Why is it that we get excited about watching a movie for two hours, but cringe at the thought of a two hour meeting? He explains why meetings should hold greater appeal than movies. We get to participate and interact in a meeting, whereas we sit passively during a movie. Meetings can have a massive impact on what we need to do afterwards, whereas nothing much in our lives is affected by whether we watch a movie or not. The difference, he demonstrates, is that movies contain drama, tensions and conflict. And these are the same ingredients that make for good meetings.

People need to be hooked in to participating in a meeting from the outset. They need to be jolted into grasping how important this meeting will be, how dangerous it would be to make a bad decision or to fail to respond to a strategic opportunity.

Throughout meetings conflict should be encouraged, not avoided. Avoiding difficult issues ultimately leads to boredom and frustration. However, mining for conflict and disagreement opens the opportunity for productive, engaging, and even fun meetings! Leaders need to give people permission to disagree and explore contentious issues. This creates an environment of trust where individuals can be honest and constructive and it leads to better outcomes for the organisation. Lencioni writes:

The truth is, the only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn’t exist. And I believe far more suffering is caused by failing to deal with an issue directly – and whispering about it in the hallways – than by putting it on the table and wrestling with it head on.  (p230)

Problem #2: Lack of Contextual Structure

Too often our meetings lack clarity and purpose. Some topics take up all the time and never get resolved. Other matters are rushed through at the end without getting the scrutiny they need. Some agenda items are big picture, long range and visionary. They require research, preparation and time to consider. Other items are trivial and would be better dealt with outside of the meeting. What’s the point of our meetings? Lencioni writes:

The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting, like a bad stew with too many random ingredients. Desperate to minimize wasted time, leaders decide that they will have one big staff meeting either once a week or every other week. They sit down in a room for two or three or four hours and thrash everything out… Unfortunately, this only ensures that the meeting will be ineffective and unsatisfying for everyone.  (p235)

This book recommends there should be different meetings to fulfil different purposes. It offers a template of four basic types of meetings.

Meeting #1: The Daily Check-In

This is a 5 minute meeting, held at the start of each day, where each member of the team reports very briefly on their activities for that day. This meeting is to get everyone on the same page, clear about priorities, so that things don’t fall between the cracks, and people don’t step on each other’s toes.

Meeting #2: The Weekly Tactical

These meetings are focused on tactical issues of immediate concern. Lencioni recommends not setting agendas in advance for these meetings. Rather, what’s actually going on and what the organisation needs to be doing determine what get’s discussed. Discussion should be restricted to specific, short-term topics that require people to focus on solving problems. The two overriding goals of these meetings are the resolution of issues and the reinforcement of clarity.

These meetings should normally take place weekly and run for between 45 and 90 minutes. Of course, this will mean that there simply isn’t enough time to discuss many complex and important matters. Long-term strategic issues will be left unresolved. There won’t be the opportunity for brainstorming, analysis, or even preparation (as there is no prior agenda). When strategic issues are raised in the weekly meeting, it’s important for the leader to take them off the table and plan for them to be discussed in a different type of meeting.

Meeting #3: The Monthly Strategic

These are potentially the most interesting, important, and fun meetings for the team. This is where we deal with the big stuff, where we’re headed and how we’re going to get there. It’s important to set the agenda for these meetings so that people come prepared. Research, planning and preparation will be required if quality decisions are to be made. There should only be one or two topics on the agenda so they can each receive the attention they need. The duration of these meetings will vary, but Lencioni recommends scheduling two hours per topic to encourage good conversation and debate.

It’s important to schedule these strategic topic meetings. When we don’t hold them, our meetings are dominated by the urgent rather than the important, and we fall into the trap of simply doing the same old same old. Sometimes a topic will arise that can’t wait until the next monthly strategic meeting. In these cases, the leader should call an ad hoc meeting specifically to tackle this topic. Don’t fall back into the trap of stumbling over the topic in the weekly tactical meeting.

Meeting #4: The Quarterly Off-Site Review

Off-site meetings provide the opportunity to step away from the daily, weekly and monthly issues that dominate our time and thinking. They provide the time and space to sit back and take in the wider picture. In fact, getting away from the office (so to speak) often creates a freshness and energy that takes the team and the organisation to a new level.

Such meetings need more time, usually a day or two. They provide a relaxed environment free from normal distractions. They can be utilised for a variety of purposes, such as building relationships, enhancing teamwork, comprehensive strategy review, long range dreaming and planning, or exploring what the competition is doing.

A final thought on meetings

As a church pastor, my life and work and ministry has been dominated by meetings. At times they’ve been vibrant, productive, and fun. Often they’ve been dull, lifeless and a chore. This book has offered me cause to reflect and examine our meetings. It’s led me to make some helpful changes, to clarify the purpose of our meetings, and to introduce deliberate variety in our meeting program. But as I reflect, it’s the kind of book that needs to be read and re-read. It’s easy to fall back into unhelpful old patterns and for our meetings to lose their edge. I’ll finish with this quote from Lencioni:

Bad meetings exact a toll on the human beings who must endure them, and this goes far beyond their momentary dissatisfaction. Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organisation, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. And while this certainly has a profound impact on organisational life, it also impacts people’s self-esteem, their families and their outlook on life.

And so, for those of us who lead organisations and the employees who work within them, improving meetings is not just an opportunity to enhance the performance of our companies. It is also a way to positively impact the lives of our people. And that includes us.  (p253)

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