Too Many Meetings – How to Get Out of the Vicious Cyle

When I survey people in organizations about problems they encounter, invariably in the top five is too many meetings. From many people’s perspective, the modern business meeting has evolved into an artificial life form that is a profound waste of time and company resources. Meetings have become a time to check your email, fall to sleep, check updates on FaceBook®, gossip, play games, or get hypnotized by a progression of PowerPoint® slides and mind numbing data.

Leaders are expected to run good meetings and ensure that the meetings in their organization are also run well. If meetings are seen negatively, why don’t leaders do more to improve them? In my experience, leaders don’t run meetings poorly on purpose. They may not have had a lot of positive meeting models to use as reference or they may be facing challenges that are complicated to address.

Addressing meeting problems is often compounded by a much deeper issue, namely that meetings tend to be in sync with the organizational culture. They are an extension of the culture. While a leader has some impact on a work culture, the culture also possesses a life of its own. Often the leader has to combat the culture itself to try and make meetings more effective. People will generally comment about how bad meetings are but also communicate a sense of helplessness in changing them. In my experience, there are four different types of dysfunctional meeting cultures that leaders need to be prepared to address.

The Inclusion Culture

In this type of environment, belonging to a group and being included are important values of the work culture. The net result is that meeting membership is not managed and there are often people in the meeting that really don’t need to be there. The inclusion culture has a high frequency of social get-togethers and encourages interaction outside of work. Social importance is tied to being included. If you are not at a meeting you are viewed as being valued. An important function of meetings is about determining social standing. For example, are you in the inner circle or outside of it?

The Isolationist Culture

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the isolationist culture. In this type of culture, everyone is viewed as an individual and is expected to focus on their own work. Interpersonal contact and meetings are kept to a minimum, furthering the isolation of individuals. The problem in the isolationist culture is not too many meetings but the lack of them. This tendency leads to silos of information and lack of communication between organizations.

The Talk it to Death Culture

In the talk it to death culture the main problem is that meetings are not effective and issues are not resolved. This culture has propensities towards lack of accountability and an aversion to risk or action. Meetings often are marathons lasting hours and can end without clear next steps. Members leave with a great deal of frustration because nothing was accomplished.

The Activity Junkie Culture

In the activity junkie culture, everyone is extremely busy. Meetings revolve around assigning action items. Individuals always leave the meeting with more things on their plate. While the idea of action items is a good one, the problems with the junkie culture are that action items are not followed up on or there is a lack of prioritization. These cultures don’t prioritize enough so people become quickly overloaded and quality suffers. People are busy but they might not be working on the right things.

Reducing the sheer number of meetings and making them more effective is a challenge that leaders should think about tackling directly because of how much productivity is lost.

I have identified 18 common problems that contribute to a dysfunctional meeting culture and their solutions. I’ll cover 10 in this article and you can read Part 2 on my website. Which ones are occurring in your organization?

Problem #1: Poor mechanics

The basics of good meeting practices are not followed. The purpose of the meeting is not clear. The expected outcome of the meeting is not clearly articulated. Minutes are not taken. Action items are not followed up on. Materials are not sent out ahead of time so people come into the meeting operating on different information.

Solutions: Institute basic meeting etiquette in all of your meetings. Help reinforce meeting basics to be followed in other meetings by participating and modeling the behaviors. Tie your participation to the practices being followed. Have attendees grade the meeting effectiveness and review these ratings on a regular basis.

Problem #2: The leader doesn’t effectively exercise his/her role.

This relates to a failure of the leader to do what they are supposed to do. They don’t keep conversations on track, don’t avoid rat holes, don’t check to see that people are actively engaged, and don’t close discussions at the appropriate time and move on to action. The leader may also not be clear on whether they are leading or participating which contributes to confusion among attendees on how to respond or treat the leader.

Solutions: Make clear to the leader your expectations of their role. Many leaders have not received good training on meeting management and are doing what they have observed in other meetings. Give them concrete and specific feedback on how to improve the meeting. Ask them to send clear signals when they move between the roles of leader versus participant.

Problem #3: The leader tries to do everything

Managing a meeting means juggling several very distinct activities. If the leader is trying to do all it him/herself, there will always be something that doesn’t get done.

Solutions: Distribute important meeting functions among attendees. You can assign certain roles such as note taker and time manager to encourage participation

Problem #4: No test or criteria established for creating a meeting

As a consequence, anyone can create a meeting about anything. There is no gate keeping. This is what I call the meeting reflex. When a problem is encountered the first impulse is to call a meeting. Lack of discipline in this area can lead to an explosion of meetings.

Solutions: Publish criteria for the establishment of any meeting (i.e., requires a group action, can only be 30 minutes long). Set up a meeting approval process and/or approval body that all proposed meetings must go through to be ratified. Have people submit their proposed meetings for approval. You can also limit meetings to certain days, have meeting free days, or set a maximum limit of meetings per week.

Problem #5: Meetings are a substitute for others things that are broken

Unclear or overlapping roles, broken processes, or lack of accountability can all contribute to meeting overload. Instead of fixing the core problem, we take the easy way around and set up a meeting. We learn to navigate around the bumps in the road.

Solutions: Ask these simple questions to try and identify the real problem. Are there problems between roles and responsibilities? Are we dealing with a broken process such as decision-making? Are people willing to take ownership and responsibility? Set up a work group or team to start tackling the real issue once it is identified.

Problem #6: Control not exercised over membership

People are in the meeting who really don’t need to be there while others who should be present are not. As a consequence, things don’t get resolved and more meetings are scheduled. A related problem is that the membership keeps expanding until the meeting becomes unwieldy and difficult to manage. A meeting beyond a certain size will evolve into just an information exchange.

Solutions: Scrutinize the invitee list. Uninvite attendees who shouldn’t be there. Ask attendees to justify their presence or why they should attend. Invite people who need to be there and clearly explain why. Keep the membership small when possible. An effective working meeting size is 6-10 people. Beyond that range, plan to have meetings that are more communication focused.

Problem #7: Meetings have bad PR.

“Any meeting is a waste of time. Can’t I just go do my work”? In this situation meetings have acquired a bad reputation and are framed as a necessary evil rather than an important mechanism for getting things done. People begrudgingly attend them, don’t attend, or have low expectations. All meetings are seen in a negative light.

Solutions: Start a positive PR campaign about the benefits of well-run meetings (i.e., better communication and alignment). Solicit people’s thoughts on how to make meetings better rather than just their complaints. Measure meeting performance and report the results.

Problem #8: Lack of Choice

Meeting attendance refusal is not sanctioned or there is no legitimate way for someone to opt out of a meeting. Meetings are defined as mandatory. As a consequence, people feel coerced and resent being there. They can demonstrate passive aggressive behavior

Solutions: No one likes to feel forced. While some mandatory meetings are unavoidable, keep them to a minimum. In the meetings, try to give people as many choices as possible. For example, you could ask them to vote if they’d like to adjourn early once the work is completed. Add other rewarding activities to the meeting. Food, entertainment, games, and networking time help change the environment.

Problem #9: Lack of planning for disagreement

People show up at meetings with different viewpoints, perspectives, and needs. When it is time for a decision or closure, it is not surprising that many meetings get bogged down when disagreement raises its head. Often, the leader is caught by surprise when this happens and may not know what to do. They may try to force a decision, downplay the disagreement, or let the meeting end without closure.

Solutions: Anticipate disagreement. Whenever you get two people in the room you will get different viewpoints. Solicit viewpoints ahead of time so that you can get a sense of where people stand. Send out a brief communication before the meeting outlining the positions, pros and cons, the need for the decision, and ask people to send you any other feedback they would like to be included. Ask people to come prepared to make and support a decision, and why the decision needs to be made at the meeting. Set up the agenda to allow for additional discussion and how the decision will be made (i.e., majority, consensus etc.). Manage the meeting by raising the differences first then moving on options and tradeoffs. Keep people on track and employ the method for making the decision when the time is right.

Problem #10: Too much focus on info sharing vs. decision making

With so much information to share, we use meetings as a default way to get a critical mass of people together and make sure they all have the same information. The sheer amount of information we deal with encourages our use of meetings as an information conduit. Unfortunately, these types of meetings engage people in a sequential manner. People’s attention moves in and out depending on whether or not the information is relevant to them. At any point in time there will be people checked out and some people checked in.

Solutions: There are many better ways to share information than meetings. SharePoint sites, wikis, blogs, or even web pages can be used to distribute information in an effective and efficient manner. Use them whenever possible.