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Bennett Quillen
Bennett Quillen
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Apr 06, 2016
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The Business Hell We Must Escape: Meetings

The dreaded weekly project status meeting. The pointless spin session. The 20-person cruise to nowhere. Can we end meetings as we know them?

We all waste an inordinate amount of time in useless, aimless meetings. I've even worked at organizations that meet to meet -- they schedule a meeting to determine the agenda of yet another meeting.

We need to start asking ourselves: What's the purpose of this meeting? If it isn't to reach a decision on some issue or task, it isn't a meeting. It's a lecture, presentation, or sales pitch. Its goal is to reach a consensus (whatever that is) or to stroke someone's ego. Let's at least call it what it is.

We also need to keep true meetings to six or fewer people, because meetings of more than six aren't conducive to making decisions. Why six? It's a reliable management axiom that an individual should have no more than five direct reports. Any more tends to lead to confusion, lack of coordination, and poor decision making. (Just look at the government and its umpteen Cabinet heads.) The same thinking applies to meetings. If decisions are required across lines of business, you should still keep the meeting to the five or six people who need to be involved to reach decisions.

Once those five or six people come to a decision, they can present it to a broader group over email, via WebEx, or in some dreary conference room with PowerPoint slides. Just don't call it a meeting.

[How well do you really understand the details of that software contract? Read Software Contracts 101: What To Look For.]

Now, you say, what about status meetings that may involve 20 or more people? Here, the team leads or department heads are expected to present the status of a project, quarterly results, etc. with whatever spin they can apply. These aren't really meetings; they're another form of presentation. If there's no decision making, there's no meeting.

If we must have these presentations/spin sessions, let's lay out some ground rules so we can give them a modicum of excuses for existing:

  • They have a single focus or objective: project status or update, presentation of results, new product offering, etc.
  • They come with an agenda that gets distributed before the presentation.
  • They carry an allotted time, with a hard stop at 60 minutes -- 30 minutes is better.
  • They're led by a meeting czar, who keeps things moving and cuts off self-promoters and navel gazers.
  • They don't produce decisions. All decisions in these kinds of sessions get made beforehand in true meetings with the main decision makers.
  • They allow only limited discussion. Each person presents his or her status or findings in a cogent manner.
  • They allow only limited use of slides. Focus on what people say, what decisions have been reached, and what the next set of tasks or decisions are.
  • They ban email checking and web surfing on smartphones, tablets, or laptops.

There are other ways to keep a meeting tight and on schedule. For example, you can require all attendees to stand and keep their comments to three minutes or less. (Your organization may or may not find this tactic helpful, depending upon the culture.)

In my experience over many years as a senior operations, technology, and project manager, I found that line operations and production managers tended to run the best meetings. Vendors ran the worst ones. Project management officers fell somewhere in between. My guess is that line managers know that time is money, so they demand the facts and just the facts. Vendors are always selling, so they let meetings drift into bunny trails -- lots of conversation with no tangible benefit. Project managers get caught up with the need for consensus (goodness knows why), so they seek approval from everyone, which we know is unattainable.

As the CIO of a large bank, I reported to the head of operations. He ran a tight meeting. Each person had about three minutes to provide a status. If anyone interrupted a speaker with a question that wasn't germane, the person was asked to hold the question until his or her scheduled time to speak. At the other extreme, I recently attended (usually remotely) weekly project status meetings run by a vendor project manager. He let attendees wander around the subject. Of course, the fact that he liked to "socialize" issues before "solutioning" a response created a loose environment. I wanted to call time out and put him in a penalty box.

Let's put an end to unproductive meetings. Let's hold to a tight schedule and make decisions in small groups. We'll not only get more real work done, but we'll also earn the gratitude of our meeting-maligned colleagues.

Got examples of what works and doesn't work in the meetings you've participated in or been subjected to? Please weigh in with a comment below.

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Bennett Quillen, a former CIO for a leading mutual fund processing firm, has more than 35 years of experience in financial industry technology, operations, cash management, and compliance. Today he provides financial institutions with project management and technology advice, ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 5:13:25 PM
Re: Start Early!
J., how old is your son? Good skills to build early...not just meeting-organizational skills but also people management skills.
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2014 | 1:56:14 PM
Start Early!
I will argue there are meetings where you want to brainstorm, but they aren't status meetings.  Teaching meeting skills is almost a lost art.  I

have tried to introduce some basic meeting skills with my son and his boy scout troop (you can never start too early).  As the Senior Patrol Leader of the Patrol Leaders Council, he has four (soon to grow to 6-8) other boys he must meet with to plan and conduct the business of the troop.  I think you best point is really two in one "They come with an agenda THAT GETS DISTRIBUTED BEFORE THE PRESENTATION."  I can't tell you how many meetings I have come to that have no agenda.  Or they have an agenda and its passed out as I enter the room, allowing me no time to prepare or bring pertinent information to bear. 
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 1:27:42 PM
"Team building" exercises
The most torturous meeting element to me is when you're told to break up into ad-hoc groups and come up with some imaginary business plan for a new fro-yo slash social media brand. Please, are we in kindergarten?
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2014 | 1:00:05 PM
Dilbert has nothing over real life
Bennett, I could give you a hug for that article.

They have me heading up a Sharepoint "competency group" which includes someone from Sweden and someone from China, that's it. It was suggested we have our verbal web/phone monthly meeting at 7am Central Time so the poor guy in Asia didn't have to stay until evening over there, because that's what these other CG's do.

I asked why in the world a CG on a collaboration tool has to have a verbal meeting at all. :-)  I think they got the irony so they relented on that but suggested web/verbal "kickoff meeting" might still be good to have. Sigh....

I sent a "kickoff email" instead, we'll see how that works out. :-)

Shane M. O'Neill
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 11:23:00 AM
Meeting is not brainstorming
This article lays out meeting "rules of engagement" about as well as I've seen. It's so important to have a good meeting leader who can set the tone, manage the clock and only cover what is essential. When a 30-minute meeting becomes an 90-minute "brainstorming session" you're screwed. Any meeting-runner worth his salt would never let it happen.
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 10:36:05 AM
Re: Discipline
My pet peeve: Unnecessarily long meetings. I agree that 30 minute i best and all should be capped at 60.
Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2014 | 10:07:01 AM
I agree that meetings can be useful if they're run tightly, with a clear agenda and a clear person in charge who can kill aimless sidebars and keep the discussion moving toward an actual decision. I've been in meetings with a disciplined runner and meetings without--the difference is startling.
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 9:51:51 AM
The Dreaded Status Meeting
I worked in a group where the weekly status meeting had a designated 10-minute block at the end for "moaning and whining." This was designed to keep the update portion of the meeting on track. The culture of the group was such that this technique actually worked. That messy stuff people were dying to bring up? It actually came up and got addressed. And people learned to discuss it in a concise way.
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 9:50:38 AM
Stick To An Agenda
From my experience, the first priority is to set an agenda ahead of time, preferably with input from meeting attendees, and then stick to that agenda. Then stick to that agenda. If you set a meeting for 45 minutes, no reason you can't end it in 30. 
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 9:46:56 AM
One good thing I can say about meetings: they've inspired a lot of funny Dilbert strips, like these: 

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