Tips for Avoiding Meeting Hell in the Workplace

Posted by Trevor on 10 July 2013 | 5 Comments

Hello everyone,

images-6I was recently invited to a board of advisors meeting at which I would have been one of twenty attendees. When I refused to attend there was consternation, so I explained my “meeting philosophy.” The response was raised eyebrows and drooping jaws, and I doubt I will get invited to any meeting at that company again.

 

In the early nineties I worked for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, better known today as 3M. In their recruitment propaganda they boasted that all employees were encouraged to spend 10% of company time on their own side projects with the hope that more “mistakes,” like the failed glue that became Post-It notes, would result. In reality that time had to be the employees’ additional time at night or weekends because the company had become such a middle management bloated corporation that the staff joked 3M really meant Meetings, Meetings and more Meetings.

When I look back, I estimate that I spent at least 80% of my 3M career in a meeting room. Every meeting had a political sub-plot and most were standing room only for fear that absence equated with non-compliance or lack of team spirit. Meetings lasted days, and in one case almost two weeks including the weekend in between when the agenda, such as it was, was taken onto the golf course.

Career performance was judged by meeting behavior. As with most companies the hierarchical structure was aimed to achieve decision consensus. It was not democracy but benevolent dictatorship. The lone voice was viewed as the agitator. Innovation could no longer have a place in the culture because few great inventions are created by groupthink in which analysis wins out over intuition. There is no place for genius when consensus is the goal.

Meetings ran until everyone in the room was in agreement, and until the lone voice finally acquiesced from sheer tiredness and boredom. The final agreement was usually what the meeting leader wanted in the first place, which in turn was a desire that had filtered down from on high. I can BS as well as anyone so I had a good career, and I understood the underlying political tone that while everything that could be said had been said in the first ten minutes, not everyone had said it yet. That process would fill the ensuing hours and days if necessary.

As you are reading this I am sure some of you are nodding your heads with recognition of this corporate madness in your own career or current workplace. So, what to do about it? Well, you can follow my example and be a maverick, buck the trend and fight for common sense. In a company like 3M that eventually led to me being reprimanded as a troublemaker and targeted for some pretty underhand campaigns aimed at finding a reason to fire me. I resigned before the guillotine fell. I am not saying it is impossible to change dinosaur cultures from within, but as the saying goes “the pioneer is the one lying face down in the valley with an arrow in his back.” You can probably make changes within your own team and peer-group, but beyond that can be political suicide if caring about your career is more important to you than change.

Those environments are harsh on mentality, and there is rarely a tolerance of individualism. Rare is the person who can survive that situation, and also work on becoming self-made and all they were meant to be.  The Three Simple Steps and traditional corporate culture clash.

I went to work for Biogen, which in the mid nineties was a young, small, and innovative company. Under the CEO leadership of Jim Vincent, all meetings were considered an inconvenience, and a waste of productive time unless the meeting leader could prove otherwise. It was such a refreshing change. Meetings were strictly kept to thirty minutes and invitees were free to decide if they needed to attend. I had so much spare time at first that I started to get bored in my role.  The cultural result, however, was a company of empowered employees with considerably more time to focus on profit and growth challenges rather than internal bickering and political maneuvering. The proof of the pudding is in its eating of it, and Biogen became a darling of Wall Street.

Those extremes helped me form my own philosophy for the running or attending of meetings, one not based on any scientific data or academic study assembled behind the battle zone, but a life in the trenches. Lots of management consultants might disagree with me. Those experts, however, will probably resort to calling a meeting to explain to you why I am wrong, and they will have a 30 slide presentation to prove it.

 

Blake’s Business-Meeting Basics.

 

  1. Any meeting with a vague title such as “update,” or “team meeting,” is banned.  There are more productive ways to communicate such information, and every time you pull your troops away from the front line to “educate” them you risk taking their eyes off the battle for profit and customer satisfaction.
  2. No meeting should ever be called at short notice, because that is simply crisis management. If your first reaction to a perceived crisis is to get a team together you should not be in a position of leadership. Adequate notice is a week.
  3. In any business the customer comes first and the rest is just detail. There is no meeting important enough that it interrupts excellent customer service. I have known a CEO call company wide meetings, which meant customer calls went to voicemail during that time. Needless to say the company no longer exists.
  4. The person calling a meeting must have a clear idea of the purpose, and set that purpose out in an explicit agenda with a paragraph explaining the benefit of the meeting (what it is for not what it is against), who should consider attending and why. The agenda should be circulated well in advance. If you have to ask for agenda items you should not be having a meeting. The aim is for the smallest group possible. I rarely attend any meeting with more than 3 or 4 people, because it is impossible to keep on task and time.
  5. The agenda sticks to one topic. The topic may have sub-headings or discussion points, but meetings must not be a shopping trolley full of different items. Topics not on the agenda cannot be discussed at the meeting.
  6. The topic “any other business” is banned from all meetings. Such topics lead to complaining and the purpose of the meeting gets off track and becomes negative.
  7. No meeting lasts longer than 30 minutes. If a resolution is not achieved in that time, the meeting leader should analyze their leadership skills and style, and seek improvement.
  8. Meetings start on time… exactly on time, not one second late. There is no regurgitation of the topic for the benefit of tardy employees.
  9. The meeting leader starts by asking everyone to switch off mobile devices. No one can check texts or emails in the meeting, regardless of their rank. If they are not actively involved in the discussion they probably should not be there.
  10. Anyone holding sidebar conversations is brought to task politely. (“Sorry I missed what you two were saying while I was talking. Did you have a valid point to make on this subject?”
  11. No more than 5 slides in any meeting, and even that may be 3 slides too many.
  12. Meetings finish exactly on time or before. Not one minute over or again the leader must look to herself for time-management skills.
  13. Meetings finish with an action-close… i.e an action plan with tasks delegated. If that is not how it finishes why did you have the meeting in the first place? What was the problem that needed solving?
  14. All attendees clean their space in the meeting room, pick up their rubbish and reset their chairs.
  15. Change up the meeting culture by holding an occasional meeting outside, or by taking a walk or meeting in a park.

 

Above all meetings should be seen as fun and productive activities that are aimed at solving problems and continuous improvement. Every meeting should have at its heart a desire to increase profit and/or improve customer satisfaction. If you as the leader cannot see how the meeting you are about to have contributes in that way you should not hold the meeting.

 

Cheers

Trev

5 Comments

  1. Jean says:

    And AMEN to that! I remember so many meetings where I lost the effing will to live. Being self employed that is a thing of the past, but I will keep the list in mind for when my company may actually need meetings. Hopefully never. 😀

  2. Lori Kauble says:

    Amen to this! I remember many meetings in my days at Enron (yes, Enron, sadly enough) over a $42 software application for customer retention purposes that someone in middle management decided wasn’t sophisticated enough. That person decided to spend $1 million on a fancier, more sophisticated software application that didn’t even function as well as the one that cost the company $42, because an employee created it. Many meetings and training sessions followed, unnecessarily. Where is Enron today? Where are the bigwigs now? One is dead, and the other is enjoying time in, ironically enough, a cold prison cell in Minnesota. On top of that, ALL Enron employees were encouraged (in a cult-like fashion) to invest all of their 401k monies in Enron stock. I followed the leader, unfortunately. It was a very hard lesson to learn, but I have learned it, nevertheless, and am stronger as a result. I no longer participate in any company which does not function with due-diligence or force political strong-arm tactics for certain individuals’ personal gains. That’s why I am no longer in Corporate America and never will be again. I may be a ‘little guy’ in a sea of ‘big fish’, but it’s better for me, personally, to swim with the guppies than to swim with the sharks! Thank you for this post!

    Prosperity always,

    Lori

  3. KJK says:

    I was fortunate to be in a small research group that hated meetings (by universal consensus).
    Our rules were similar, with a few added logistical considerations:

    1) No chairs.
    2) No food/beverage/water.
    3) NO LEANING, NO SLOUCHING on walls, table; no sitting on floor, etc.
    Two balanced feet only- stand your ground, make your point- NOW.
    4) Closed door- and no one was allowed to come/go.
    5) No electronic devices, no slides.
    6) Table was to only be used to present the ONE data set/item under discussion (on one page, if at all possible, though it was considered to be a waste of time to shrink physically large data (chromatograms, spectra, etc.) at the copier for the sake of one page),
    7) One wipeboard, with one marker (+ one backup), controlled by moderator.
    (This was due to the interpersonal oddity of our group (50% were semi-feral), who would have a habit of over writing, if not over talking, each other- so one marker tended to shut that down, though there were some marker-grabbing/elbow throwing scuffles at times).

    Steps 1)- 4) alone were encouragement sufficient to keep things on point, as the group would self- moderate (& demand that points be honed), especially at ~ 20 minute mark.

  4. Trev says:

    Brilliant and thanks for sharing. Love the closed door. I’d add that to mine as well.
    Trev

  5. Stephanie says:

    Timely post, I am leading a statewide staff meeting on Friday. I’m rethinking the purpose and timeframe, shorter than longer. Is it worthy of a meeting to do team building bringing together staff who work remotely, along with Strategic Planning?
    LOVE the mobile device rule. I will have an incinerator at the door, and a valium for every millennial who can’t handle the disconnect.

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