How to Make Meetings Productive




Excessive meetings are a symptom of a major organizational problem. Are you a sufferer?

Few things characterize modern management so much as the escalating tendency to have meetings — online and offline.

Remarkably, many meetings are time-wasters. Conducting an effective meeting is an acquired skill.

In short, people must be trained to make meetings work, that is, to contribute to the effectiveness of both the worker and the organization.

Peter F. Drucker observed that most meetings are boring...lack clear-cut objectives...and a meaningful structure. Equally counterproductive was the tendency for people to leave a meeting in the state of harmony and good feeling but without any sense of direction or program of action.

Donald Keogh, former president of Coca-Cola, told how Drucker hammered this point home to him: "He would tell me after each [consulting] session don't tell me you had a wonderful meeting with me. Tell me what you're going do on Monday that's different."

Put differently, the result of many kinds of meetings should degenerate into specific work assignments, deadlines for performance, and measurements to gauge whether or not what was decided upon is working.

Out of Sight, Out of Memory

Management, for example, often spends an enormous amount of time in meetings making capital appropriations decisions. But amazingly few pay much attention to what happens after the capital investment has been approved.

In many companies there is no way of finding out. To be sure, if a new multimillion-dollar CRM database system falls behind schedule or costs a great deal more than was originally planned, everybody knows about it.

But once the CRM "is on stream," there is not too much attention paid to comparing its performance with the expectations that led to the investment.

Many decisions made in meetings are barely ever looked at once the decision has been made. No one follows up on whether or not what was discussed has been converted into measurable action, let alone expected results.

Too Many Meetings Are a Symptom of Malorganization

Meetings, said Peter F. Drucker, are by definition a concession to deficient organization. "For one either works or meets. One cannot do both at the same time.

"In an ideal design structure (which is only a dream) there would be no meetings. Everybody would know what he needs to know to do his job. Everybody would have the resources available to him/her to do his job.

"Meetings are necessary because people holding different jobs have to cooperate to get a specific task done... We meet because the knowledge and experience needed in a specific situation are not available in one head, but have to be pieced together out of experience and knowledge of several people.

"There will always be more than enough meetings. Organizations require so much working together that it's impossible not to have meetings.

"Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings some formal, some informal, but stretching out for hours. Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed."

Are You Spending More Than 25 Percent of Your Time in Meetings?

"An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.

"As a rule, meetings should never be allowed to become the main demand on an executive's time.

"Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components...if people in an organization find themselves in a meetings a quarter of their time or more there is time-wasting malorganization.

"Too many meetings signify that work that should be in one job or in one component is spread over several jobs or several components. They signify that responsibility is diffused and information is not addressed to the people that need it."

The Point?

Excessive meetings are a symptom of a major organizational problem. The organizational structure must be redesigned to achieve desired results.

The right organizational structure does not guarantee success. The wrong organizational structure guarantees nonperformance and an epidemic of meetings.

Said Drucker: "Whenever executives, except at the very top level, spend more than a fairly small fraction of their time maybe a quarter or more in meetings, there is prima facie a case of malorganization.

" An excess of meetings indicates that jobs have not been defined clearly, have not been structured big enough, have not been made truly responsible... "

Another reason, observed Drucker, for an excess of meetings due to malorganization is to rely on "coordinators'," "assistants," and other such whose job it is not to have a job...

"…this indicates that activities and jobs have been designed too narrowly, or their activities and jobs, rather than being designed for one defined result, are expected to do a great many parts of different tasks.

"...It usually indicates that the organizational components have been organized according to skill rather than according to their place in the process or according to their contribution... for skill always contributes only a part rather than a result.

" ...And then one needs a coordinator or some other such nonjob to put pieces together that should have never been separated in the first place."

Opportunity Meetings

Drucker taught us results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems.

"All one can hope to get by solving a problem is to restore normality. All one can hope, at best, is to eliminate a restriction on the capacity of the business to obtain results."

The results themselves must come from capitalizing on identified opportunities. Most meetings are concerned with the care and feeding of problems; what the organization is doing successfully is usually ignored.

Of course, problems must be taken care of, but when problems receive all the attention, it seems that management is satisfied with congratulating itself that things did not get worse.

Constantly struggling with problems, or putting out fires, at the expense of capitalizing on opportunities that have revealed themselves is a sure-fire sign that the business has past its prime.

In short, when problems are the only thing discussed by management in its regular meetings, the business will inevitably drift from leadership to mediocrity. And mediocre organizations rapidly become marginal, then extinct.

Meetings Should Focus Vision on Opportunity, Not Only Problems

People see what is presented to them; what is not presented tends to be overlooked.

To repeat: "Most meetings discuss 'problems' especially in the areas where performance falls below expectations which means that managers tend not to see the opportunities. They're simply not being presented with them. "

Drucker said again and again: "Of course, problems have to be paid attention to, taken seriously, and tackled... But if they are the only thing that is being discussed, opportunities will die of neglect. "

Many successful organizations, thanks to Drucker, now have two meetings...one meeting to focus on the problems and one to focus on the opportunities. Focusing attention on opportunities can be integrated into the structure of traditional, routine meetings.

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