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Francis Wade | The missing ingredient that makes meetings a drag

Published:Friday | October 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

What can be done in your company to conduct fewer meetings of shorter length but higher quality?

The fact is, bad ones take up precious collective time, diverting attention away from other activities. Most complain that they represent a significant source of corporate waste.

A few years ago, I assisted in conducting an assessment centre for a client. This activity involved stress-testing the skills of a group of managers-in-training. We, the judges, observed them closely as they undertook difficult simulations, ranking their development needs in order to provide precise, individual feedback.

One of the exercises was intended to rate their ability to take charge and structure a meeting. We seated the cohort of about twenty around a table and provided a written description of an issue. Their brief deliberately excluded even a hint of an intention.

For half an hour, they talked, unsure what the panel of observers expected. Perhaps they imagined we were looking at their interpersonal skills. No problem there - they quickly established a friendly, open tone.

However, never once did anyone question or suggest a purpose, intent, or meaning for the discussion. Instead, they were happy to talk in circles, sharing a meaningless chat on company time.

Perhaps this never happens in your organisation, but I suspect that you can relate. Have you ever walked out of a marathon meeting wondering what just happened? You saw a lot of words passing back and forth but felt like something was missing: No new tasks? No accountability? No real promises? No due dates?

Somewhere, we have come to settle for a mediocre result: it's enough to feel good at the end of an expensive gathering of busy people without having anything tangible to show for it. The cost in managerial and professional time? An abomination.

While some may say it all reflects a lack of discipline, I prefer Occam's Razor: the most likely answer to a hard question is the most obvious. The simplest explanation is that when essential steps are skipped at the very start of a meeting, there's no quick way to recover.




Is your company on a campaign to cut this ubiquitous form of waste? One basic approach is to implement the three steps of PAL: purpose, agenda, and logistics.

The clearer the definition of success, the shorter the meeting. Skip it all together, and watch the time investment bloat, then slip down the drain.

In the stress test I mentioned earlier, many participants shared that they wondered about the purpose but decided not to say anything. This left each person free to pursue his/her individual agenda, which was a guaranteed way to add more time and effort.

I advocate writing the objective on a wall for medium to large groups so that every conversant can point to it whenever needed. But often, that's not enough. If you end up pointing to it frequently, consider it a sign that you may have skipped a step.

For example, you could be tempted to skimp on this activity because "everyone knows what the purpose is". Instead of being impatient, take a deep breath. This is not a solo effort. Don't dare move on to the next point before being satisfied that attendees are on the same page.

Tip: If the purpose is "the same as last time", then call a complete stop. Either cancel or redesign the activity.

If the first step addresses the 'why', then the second and third, agenda and logistics, address the 'how'.

What are the topics of discussion that will enable the meeting to accomplish the objective? Given the fact that every well-designed meeting has a time constraint, a decision must be made about what will, and will not, be discussed. Allow a consensus to form around the duration required for each topic.

Beyond the agenda, there are often other requirements. There should be ground rules of engagement as well as other practical matters such as ensuring the smallest attendance possible.

This is also a good moment to announce what's being done differently in this meeting to improve quality. Keeping participants on the edge is important so that no one is allowed to cruise to an unremarkable, mediocre finish.

Consider the cumulative cost of all meetings that end in this way. Unfortunately, most companies would rather cut payroll than address these issues. Why? Executives find it easier to cut heads than lead a collective behaviour change, which requires them to act differently.

In summary, PAL is by no means a complete list of all the points needed for a meeting's success. However, I suggest these are core, mandatory elements that are most likely to destroy quality if excluded. Attend to them on a wide scale and your company can boost every single employee's productivity.

- Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity'. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns or give feedback, email: