Many teams endure too much time wasted in unproductive meetings. I am increasingly convinced that this is not due to a lack of knowledge.
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We are awash in information about How to plan and run productive meetings. We have centuries of useful tips and multiple professions full of people who know how to structure and lead a productive meeting to draw upon.
I believe instead that those ineffective meetings are a systemic issue. If leaders really wanted to address their meeting problems, they could - but they don't.
Something gets in the way. That something is baked into the team culture. It's the
"how things get done around here." It's a system that has no allowance for making changes to meetings.
Of course, the company handbook doesn't decree that "Thou shalt run soul-sucking meetings." If the meetings are bad and we're not talking about the meetings, then that's a shadow system. Shadow systems are full of unwritten rules, workarounds, and habits governing how people interact. Part ingenuity, part social conformity, and a whole bunch of just not looking too closely because we have other priorities right now thank you very much.
I enjoy planning meetings. I also enjoy large, easy jigsaw puzzles.
When you know the basic shape you’re going for, and you have a bunch of the pieces handy, it can be quite satisfying to get them to all fit together into a nice, coherent picture. With a jigsaw puzzle, it’s very clear that the value is in the activity itself. People who puzzle do so because they enjoy spending their time figuring it out—not because they’re genuinely curious about what the end picture might be.
Like the picture you see when you finish a jigsaw puzzle, most of the plans you get at the end of a planning meeting aren’t really meant to last.
Meeting overload, zoom fatigue, and too much time wasted in unproductive meetings: these problems grow during periods of rapid change. Bad meetings proliferate when we struggle to communicate well. And when things change rapidly, we need to share more information more often to keep on top of the situation.
According to a 2013 study by PMI, $75 million for every $1 billion spent on projects is put at risk by ineffective communications. (source)
Remember 2013? Looking back, those seem like such simple times! How much more money do you imagine we're losing now, after two years of constant uncertainty? If we struggled to share information effectively back then, it's no wonder that today's meeting madness has become so overwhelming.
Now imagine, what else might we accomplish if we could redirect those wasted funds (and time and energy) towards achieving some worthwhile goals?
John Antill works as a U.S. Army Expeditionary Civilian Workforce Knowledge Manager. In his pursuit of a Master's Degree at Kent State University, he decided to map the flow of information while working as the Knowledge Manager for Army Joint Force Headquarters Cyber using the military's Operational Management Rhythm approach. He focused specifically on the meetings, or meeting flow models, asking:
Which meetings are we running now? What's their purpose?
How are these meetings intended to fit into the larger information flow?
Is the necessary information reaching the right people at the right time?
Where are the gaps? Where are the redundancies?
How might we re-work our meetings to better achieve our objectives?
When he was done, the Army worked to implement his suggestions. Early results include:
105 staff hours per week saved by redesigning one meeting A 30-person weekly meeting that had run four hours each week was reduced to 30 minutes.
70% fewer meetings 178 regularly scheduled meetings involving multiple groups reduced to 55
Radically increased workforce adaptability The inter-department meeting schedule for a 4-Star Command, including meetings that coordinate the work of nearly 1.5 million people, was successfully shifted to adapt to the Covid-19 lockdown in a matter of weeks.
Right now, many teams are dealing with massive turnover. Reports on the "Turnover Tsunami" and "The Great Resignation" reveal staggering volatility across industries and countries. Have you driven past the restaurants in your area recently? If so, you've seen the desperate billboards advertising hiring bonuses, increased wages, and pleading with customers to forgive their limited services.
Why is this happening? Lots of reasons.
According to Gallup, it may have nothing to do with the organization, the manager, or the team; this is part of what happens when major events force people to re-evaluate their life choices. Normally, major events like graduations, marriages, births, and deaths are infrequent and sprinkled randomly across the workforce. During these last 18 months, every single person experienced a major life event all at once. Everyone is re-evaluating their life choices, and a lot of them are deciding it's time for a change.
In short, it may not be about you right now.
Of course, if your whole team just quit, it might be entirely about you. Your company might be a terrible place to work. You might be an awful manager. Gallup also says that the Great Resignation is made worse by a pervasive Great Discontent.
Whatever the reason, labor shortages are making it hard to get work done.
The cascading failures are unraveling the supply chain. Whole teams are walking away from complicated systems, leaving their replacements with no one to tell them how it all works. This makes the new jobs especially difficult because customers haven't relaxed their expectations. Kindness, unfortunately, is not as contagious as Covid-19.
While many are leaving their jobs, it's likely that boredom, loneliness, or finances will drive them into new jobs soon.
What does this mean for employers and people leaders?
You don't necessarily need an agenda to have a great meeting.
I'm pretty sure you knew that already.
I'm guessing you've attended many useful and interesting meetings that lacked an agenda. I bet that when someone tells you "No agenda, no attenda!" you feel chastened, but also a bit annoyed by this demand for what feels like busy work. Short, purposeful meetings simply don't need an agenda.
Every meeting, though, should have a clear purpose. Why does this group need to spend this time together?
Leaders around the world have a lazy habit of adding meetings to the calendar without making it clear why that meeting needs to happen. As Doodle reported in a 2019 study of over 10 million meetings: