Many organisations have attempted to improve their meetings but found that, despite initial improvements, changes are hard to sustain and bad habits quickly creep back in. In Kill Bad Meetings the authors Kevan and Alan Hall propose an alternative method for reducing the number and improving the quality of face-to-face and virtual meetings.
Meetings are a big issue for all organisations...
They are essential to collaboration and decision making and, as organisations are becoming more collaborative and more interdependent, the number of meetings is increasing. Research for the book found that on average managerial and professional people are spending two days per week in meetings.
It makes sense when 40% of your most expensive and critical resource is tied up in single activity to invest in improving skills and productivity. There is probably no other single task that takes such a high proportion of key people’s time, so improvements can have a big impact.
Unfortunately, the quality of meetings is often poor; over 4,000 participants in training programmes and several external research reports found that around 50% of the content of meetings is irrelevant to participants. It’s hard to imagine any other area of business where we would accept 50% waste.
Unsurprisingly, given the compelling numbers, many organisations have tried to improve their meetings but many have struggled to sustain an improvement. After an initial period of enthusiasm and change, bad habits quickly start to creep back in and we lose the initial gains.
The authors identify five key reasons these changes are not sustained
1. Not being ambitious enough
For every 100 managers and professional people you employ, unnecessary meetings alone probably cost £1.5M per year. A robust business case is usually easy to put together.
There are examples in the book of organisations where the opportunity for improvement runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In any other area of business this size of problem would warrant a significant investment. If your production or marketing director offered to save hundreds of millions of dollars just by running a short training course would this be credible?
If we want to make a sustained change in such a significant area we need to invest in skills but also in technology, culture and change management. Putting together a proper business case is a great place to start.
2. Not dealing with the corporate culture behind the meetings
Our meetings culture is a reflection of our corporate culture. Many great organisations have grown with a corporate culture that emphasises teamwork, involvement and strong face-to-face relationships.
These cultures often express those values through involving people in meetings. When we start to reduce the number of meetings or to uninvite people from them we come into conflict with these deeply held cultural values
If we want to have a sustainable change in the number and quality of meetings we need to provide other opportunities to deliver on what the corporate culture values. For example, if we value involvement then we need better processes for consulting and informing people and stakeholder management outside meetings.
Any sustainable change the meetings requires us to either change our corporate culture or find new ways to enact it.
3. Ignoring the positive by-products of terrible meetings
Have you ever been to a meeting or event where you thought the content was terrible but it was worth going for the networking opportunities in the breaks or evenings?
Even the worst meetings often have positive by-products in areas such as networking or visibility. If meetings are the only opportunity you have in your organisation to build your network or stay visible then people will often resist reductions in meetings.
On the other hand, it is clear that the best process for building your network and staying visible is not to sit in the back of boring and irrelevant meeting and hope someone notices you! If we are going to reduce the number of meetings we need to provide other ways for people to stay visible and build connections across the organisation
4. Focusing too much on facilitation
Many meetings initiatives jump straight from the identifying the problem to running facilitation skills training. It seems like an easy fix – build the capability of the people running the meetings and you fix the meetings.
However, when 50% of meeting content is irrelevant then improving facilitation means we are just getting better at running a lot of meetings that don’t need to happen.
In Kill Bad Meetings the authors introduce a process for identifying unnecessary topics and participants and taking them out of your meetings. Then they go on to look at new ways to plan meetings that overcome some of the typical challenges such as unclear decision-making, too much information sharing and lack of participation.
Only once these are clear do they address facilitation techniques.
5. Forgetting the virtual
An increasing proportion of meetings are happening virtually – through audio conference or tools like WebEx or Skype for Business. Whilst this has brought significant cost advantages over face-to-face meetings, particularly in dispersed and international teams, many virtual meetings are badly planned and facilitated.
Any attempt to improve the way we meet at scale across the organisation needs to embed great virtual facilitation and participation techniques. Many people are using tools like WebEx to automate boring presentations with little role for the audience.
With a little planning, these tools can be used to create very interactive experiences.
It is possible to sustain improvements in meetings cultures, however the “run a facilitation course” approach is not enough to deliver these significant business benefits. We need a more systematic approach to managing the change, overcoming corporate cultural barriers, eliminating unnecessary meetings and building more capable meetings processes before we focus on building facilitation skills.
Kill Bad Meetings is available now, priced at £20.00.