Effective Meetings

14 04 2009

Based on the basic principle of taking ownership for being the change you want to see in the world.

Mary Gildersleve, PMP Detroit MI

marygildersleve1You’ve met these people: the infamous “meeting caller” and the subsequent “meeting victim.” And perhaps, like me, you’ve been guilty of being both.  It’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees – we have good intentions! – yet I consistently find overbooked calendars and umpteen excuses for why a particular thing, like work effort, deliverable, priority, etc., isn’t done yet.  The typical statement sounds something like, “I have too many meetings and no time to get my work done!”   Sound familiar?  The next time you hear that, you’ll know you’ve discovered yet another meeting victim. But who’s really to blame here?  At first glance, it appears to be the person responsible for adding meeting upon meeting to everyone’s calendar, a.k.a., the meeting caller.  This raises the next question:  Who are these meeting callers and why are they doing this?

Call me an optimist, but on large cross-functional programs (where meeting victimization commonly exists), I find overwhelming evidence that people are basically well-intended and the problem is usually independent of our general working norms.  While managers (project managers, micromanagers, development managers, etc.) seem to be more visibly culpable in terms of the physical act of sending out a meeting notice, certainly some underlying cause (communication failure, skill level, organizational culture, etc.) drives this behavior.  Without a lengthy assessment of each organization, in what ways can we quickly improve our circumstances and promote direct communication and therefore fewer meetings?


It seems logical as a first step to increase awareness of how meetings add value (or don’t), in a non-exhaustive list:

Three valid reasons to meet:

  • Brainstorming: Leveraging multiple perspectives to solve a problem, focus on quantity over quality of ideas, etc.
  • Kicking off a project: Introducing teams, getting multiple people on the same page, addressing questions associated with beginning a project, etc.
  • Hierarchical report-outs: Steering committee meetings, escalated issue resolution, shared view and conversation of status, etc.

Three reasons not to meet:

  • A question needs answering: Seems simple, right?  Think of how many times you’ve seen four or five people pulled together for what could have been a one-to-one hallway conversation.
  • It’s too complex for e-mail: A phone call can yield remarkable results for those complex or lengthy subjects that can be difficult to communicate in writing.  Summing up key points after the conversation doesn’t hurt.
  • Empowerment issues: If you find it’s necessary to frequently include your manager in meetings, perhaps a conversation is needed around the empowerment and authority of your role.

Knowing not every situation calls for a meeting, how can we prevent ourselves from becoming repeat meeting victims and engage in more direct, and ultimately less time-consuming, communication?  Maybe it starts with a three-step process:

  • Decline the meeting notice: It gets easier after the first time, I promise! This is different than ignoring or disregarding it, because you’ll connect with the meeting caller directly to see how you can accomplish the desired outcome without the formality of a meeting.  It’s helpful to reference a specific reason for declining such as:

– An agenda with clear purpose and outcomes is missing
– The intended outcome can be achieved with a subset of people
– It’s fiscally responsible to minimize unnecessary time spent in meetings

  • Compliment the right behaviors: It’s been suggested that people do more of the things they receive compliments for and are more likely to support a world they help create.  Even if you’re dealing with several meeting callers in your environment, remember that you can affect change faster by working with these basic principles.  The principles really are universal, and apply to encouraging positive change via changing our reactions as meeting victims to the meeting notices.
  • Proactively support direct communication: Try hard not to be the person who doesn’t answer the phone when called.  Being accessible will encourage meeting callers to consider one-to-one communication as a viable alternative.  There are unintended benefits with direct communication as well; think of all the information you’ll be privy to that participants may be reluctant to bring up in a meeting!

I’m interested in hearing how others have solved this problem in perhaps more creative ways of either reducing the number of meetings you organize and/or reducing the number of meetings you attend.  If you have tips and tricks, please share them!



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