Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
August 2, 2011 2:21 PM

Your Meetings Suck

Meetings suck.

At around 2:00 pm on any given weekday, the same sinking feeling comes over me at the office and all I can think to myself is: "wow, I have to get out of here if I'm ever going to get any serious work done!" What has our work become? I actually have to physically leave my office and go home to get my work done (many would argue that the best place to work is on an airplane or a hotel room in a foreign city, while some of us escape to the corner Starbucks or local library). This is a common and shared experience in the workplace by almost all of us (especially those in management roles). Many of us grapple to lift our heads up from the haze that is a non-stop, full-day press of phone calls, emails and meetings. Meetings after meetings. Meeting to set-up more meetings. Meetings where the outcome is that more meetings will be required to resolve an issue. Meetings are taking over our businesses and keeping us from actually getting the work done. Meetings are the reason cartoons like Dilbert and TV shows like The Office exist (and why there are so funny... or sad). Let's face it: meetings not only suck, but meetings are sucking the life out of organizations... and they're taking our soul and desire to live along with it.

What happened here?

Weren't meetings originally created as a way for us to get things done? Weren't meetings supposed to be the place where decisions are made and the next steps are clearly communicated to the whole team? Weren't meetings supposed to be the place where a team can come together and brainstorm a better way to get the job done?

How did we get so bad at meetings and is there any way to save us?

For years, productivity experts have waxed poetic about how to create some semblance of practicality around a meeting. From more traditional approaches like integrating Robert's Rules of Order (a book intended to create an approach to running a meeting within the government) to much more creative solutions like never letting a meeting last longer than fifteen minutes or getting everyone to stand-up during the entire duration of the meeting (no chairs... no sitting down). The net result of those actions? Yup, we're all still drowning in more and more meetings, but that could all change if Al Pittampalli has anything to do with it.

"I used to work for Ernst & Young where I was an IT advisor, and I would sit in these meetings with Fortune 500 companies and it was sheer torture," says Al Pittampalli, who releases his first business book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting (published by Seth Godin's The Domino Project powered by Amazon), this week. "Instead of paying attention to what was happening in the meetings, they were so dreadful that I started paying attention to the structure of the meetings. Bad meetings are pervasive in almost all organizations, and I simply couldn't believe that nobody had figured out how to re-think the modern day meeting. I went on a quest to fix this and it's been fun for me. I love the topic and the insights that have come out of it."

The truth is that Read This Before Our Next Meeting is less of a business book and much more of a manifesto.

The 66 pages can be read in about an hour and he defines his new meeting framework like this: "The Modern Meeting supports a decision that has already been made. The Modern Meeting starts on time, moves fast, and ends on schedule. The Modern Meeting limits the number of attendees. The Modern Meeting rejects the unprepared. The Modern Meeting produces committed action plans. The Modern Meeting refuses to be informational. Reading memos is mandatory. The Modern Meeting works only alongside a culture of brainstorming."

"The heart of what this book is about is that a meeting cannot exist without a decision to support it that has already been made," declares Pittampalli. "That may sound strange at first, but it is paramount to understanding how to run a meeting in this day and age. Bad meetings have become such a huge problem all over the world because we have a decision problem. The meeting is just a symptom. When someone within an organization has a very important decision to make, that can be a very scary thing. They wind up calling a meeting instead of making a decision. In fact, a meeting is a great way to stall a decision. When you have a decision to make and you gather eight people into a room, not only does that seem productive, but it also gives the businessperson an opportunity to diffuse the responsibility of that decision across the participants in the meetings. That meeting turns into another meeting and it delays the decision to no end. I looked at the structure of that and realized that our traditional meeting system actually encourages people to stall. The only way to combat stalling is to re-define the meeting. The meeting should not make the decision. If you want to hold a meeting, you have to make a decision first, but that doesn't mean that you can't get input from others. You get that input from one on one conversations, and once you've got the proper amount of intelligence and input, then you can have the meeting. The meeting's purpose should be to possibly change your mind, but the bias of this new meeting model is to create real action."

Does that read like hyperbole? It shouldn't.

Add up all of the meetings you attended last week. Count those hours. Now, ask yourself: was it worth it? Did it make your customer's lives better? Did it help increase your overall sales? Did it make your co-worker's lives better? Meetings were never meant to be a distraction from the actual work (and that's, precisely, Pittampalli's point). Meetings are meant to be another forum for the advancement of the business. There's a reason Pittampalli has chosen the title, Meeting Culture Warrior, for his life's work (besides, it's much cooler than, "President" or "CEO").

We're at war. Not with one another or the competition. We're at war with our time, and if we let meetings - as they're currently being run - win, we all lose.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

My full audio conversation with Al Pittampalli will be released in an upcoming episode of Six Pixels of Separation - The Twist Image Podcast.

By Mitch Joel