How to Quickly End Useless Meetings
More lying happens in meetings than any other place in your organization, most are lies of silence.
In meetings, silence isn’t consent, its cowardice, self-interest, manipulation, or political expediency. Honesty, more than anything else, transforms meetings.
Truth-telling ends useless meetings.
When there’s more honesty in the “meeting after the meeting,” excellence is a myth.
Meetings apart from honesty are:
- Driven by personal agendas.
- Scripted frustration.
- Fake affirmations of weak leadership.
Robert Herbold, former C.O.O of Microsoft, told me, “Many meetings are useless religious ceremonies controlled by highly organized, meaningless ritual after meaningless ritual.” I wrote, “Polite Meetings Are a Waste of Time” after our conversation.
Great agendas, apart from honest participation, are well oiled exercises in futility.
Jay Elliot, former Sr. V.P. of Apple, shocked me when he said they had lots of meetings at Apple and they were useful. I’ve come to appreciate well run meetings, even if they are rare.
Great organizations have great meetings.
- Honest participation begins with leaders. They won’t be honest if you aren’t. Point out elephants in the room. Share your missteps. Seek real solutions. Challenge the status quo.
- Honor honesty. The next time a thorny issue is raised, thank the person who raises it. If you punish them, everyone learns the expediency of silence.
- Success depends on chairpersons who keep everyone focused and who move conversations toward action items.
- Agree on and define problems before discussing solutions.
- Invite participation with short agendas. Long agendas silence discussion.
- Identify imperfect next steps. Forget perfect solutions. Small steps are better than no steps. Excellence is never a destination.
- Assign responsibility and establish deadlines. “Who does what by when?”
Bonus: The goal of all meetings is doing what’s best for the entire organization, not simply your division.
What do effective chairpersons do?
How are useful agendas created?
Great post. Honesty also involves accurately “remembering” what you committed to in the last meeting, and being honest if something has changed…
Great add Karin. Thanks
How true and such a waste. A remedy from a friend of mine – cut the meetings you go to by half, and wait to see what happens. His prediction – virtually nothing!
Love it David! Thanks for the suggestion.
I very much agree. The passive/aggressive response is to sign up to things through silence in the meeting and then sabotage it afterwards.
We do have to keep one thing in mind though: silence can also mean people are thinking, as it’s hard to think and talk at the same time. Often Introverts are being silent not because they don’t agree, it’s because they haven’t summoned up the energy to contribute.
I hear you saying people need think time. So true. I can think of several people who are much better if they have time to mull things over. But, put them on the spot and they are silent. Good call.
Good post, Dan-
Effective chairpersons are facilitators. They keep the meeting moving, on-agenda, on time, honoring the contributions of all, and encouraging those who do not speak to become part of the team. Effective, and for that matter ineffective chairpeople as well, set the tone and the agenda of the meeting.
As you have stated some of this is with their own transparency. People quickly lear to model what their leaders do, and they learn what thinsg are rewarded. Those are the things you will get back in out run-of-the-mill dishonest meetings.
A useful agenda explores what needs to be discussed; for the organization and not necessarily for the single department. Useful agenda are formed by getting basic information and canvassing before the meeting, setting time limits to discussion of the items, and leaving each item with a definitive plan for who is responsible, what they need to get done, and when it needs to be done by.
Wow! You really brought it Martina. Thank you for adding value to this discussion. You make me think a post on how to chair meetings might be useful.
Useful agendas are generated both top down and bottom up. Thanks for suggestions re: canvassing before the meeting. Practical and actionable.
Have a great day.
Thanks Dan. Its a subject near and dear to my heart. Yes, a Post about how to chair a meeting would be useful. Looking forward to reading it. Let me know if I can help or contribute in any way.
I just this morning saw our comment. My short-timeline didn’t allow us time to connect on this topic. I look forward to reading your insights in the post that follows. Thanks for all you give to the community. We should talk sometime.
you are right. Most of the meetings are just following the trends. And none wants to seek its relevance and utility. Generally trends prevail because someone on the top likes it. They like it because they perceive it useful exercise. So, key people perception is the catalysts of such practices. I remember, one key person in management school, used to call daily meetings and hold it for two hours daily. The funny thing is that there was non academic, irrelevant, and cheap issues in the discussion. There were few people especially women, who were very close to the boss, were active in the meetings. It continued for two years until new person replaced the old one. So, the point is why do they do it? They do it to make their position safe.
But effective chairperson questions the logic and effectiveness of meetings. It there is a need to call daily meetings, nothing wrong provided it shows result and allows everyone to speak their mind without fear. But when fear percolates, then it is just waste of time.
I appreciate your points of creating small and specific agenda for every meetings. Leaders should communicate agenda beforehand and also set some guidelines of do’s and dont. For example, there are people, who are more engaged in sending, receiving message, looking for mails, etc. Such practices deviates others from the agenda and send strong signals of poor leadership.
Deadlines are of course needed. Appreciation, recognition and encouraging dissent to speak are some good points to do.
Love the powerful but sad story you share. It’s reminds all of us that going along to get along is costly.
Thanks for adding the little nugget at the end, “encourage dissent.” One way to encourage dissent is to assign people to make dissenting arguments, even if they agree. This makes it safer to express alternatives.
As an administrative assistant, I don’t facilitate the meetings for my boss, but I do provide an agend for the meetings so that the thinkers have time to think. The meetings grow shorter and shorter this way.
I used to work for a company that took all of the chairs out of the conference room. People had to think on their feet and the meetings were very short!
I’ve heard of the “standing” meeting approach. I’ve read meetings are 25% shorter. Great add. Thanks
All of my daily stand ups were just that…stand ups. Average one took four minutes. We started doing the same with all other meetings except my one-on-ones. I purposely wanted those to stay “relaxed” so we sat.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Love the idea of taking the chairs out of the conference room… thank you
POWERFUL Dan: “In meetings, silence isn’t consent, its cowardice, self-interest, manipulation, or political expediency.”
All I can is that I agree with everything in this post and will be sharing it with two people in particular.
Putting time constraints on agenda topics also helps keep focus.
We just started wrapping up meetings with a couple of questions for the last 5 minutes…
1) Your #7- Does everyone have an assignment
2) What is one thing we can do next time to make this meeting more productive?
The second question obviously sets up a continuous improvement mindset.
Love this conversation on meetings. I have led and trained others to lead meetings and it is always a challenge. Here’s 2 additional things I always say. 1) Pray before you go to the meeting. We rely too much on ourself in meetings and don’t ask God to join us and allow him to lead us. 2) Leave quiet space. Too often in meetings the leaders are fairly direct, and those that are talkers, do what they do best. However, many individuals are contemplative and will speak up if they are given some time to think through things and then find a bit of quiet space to actually add to the conversation. We miss out on great insights when we aren’t intentional about structuring the environment so that each personality type can get involved!
Another great post Dan, thank you.
I’ve been coaching a numbers of leaders recently in effective meetings.
I promote Stand-Up meetings for daily operations focus, and it definitely energises and keeps people focussed on what is pertinent there & then. Plus, because no-one really enjoys standing, meetings tend to be shorter, with the associated benefits this brings.
As docdisc says, it’s very useful to recap on assigned actions (and every action shold be assigned to a person, with target date for feeding back) and good to review what went well / could be better in the meeting.
A couple of respondents have commented on genuine reasons why some people might remain silent in a meeting. I’d add:
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
In Meetings, this is the ONLY information you want.
Anything else is extending the meeting time, and we want to keep meeting times to a minimum, so we can go out and DO SOME WORK.
WHAT IS USEFUL TO KNOW
You want this information in 1 to 1 discussions, or when out in the field with your team. Alternatively, it can be telephoned or emailed to you, as appropriate. You only want this in meetings if it is useful for EVERYONE ELSE to know.
WHAT WOULD BE NICE TO KNOW
You want this imparted to you in passing. An email or phone call is sufficient. NEVER allow meetings to be clogged with this level of info.
Having said all this, I certainly accept your points that some people remain silent for the wrong reasons, and I hope you won’t mind me incorporating some of your ideas into my coaching.
Thanks again 🙂
Hello Dan, and all, my first comment ever. Thanks for everyone’s useful thoughts, to help us all be more intentional and transparent in meetings.
Two aspects not yet mentioned — 1) make it clear in the agenda whether the conversation on a topic is information-gathering/exploring or actual decision-making/prioritizing.
And, in the same vein, 2) Let people know ahead of time what is the question you are wanting to answer during that part of the meeting, so that the thoughtful ones can have done their preparation and be ready to share/vote accordingly, and the talk-y ones can have done theirs and be ready to speak more succinctly!
Thanks for your first comment Judy. Love what you added. You’re thoughts on allowing thoughtful people time has proven true in my experience. We miss so much if we don’t give some people time to think.
A very good book on this subject is “Read This Before Your Next Meeting” by Al Pittampalli
Hear hear! Or perhaps more appropriately given your theme – don’t hear! Silence plus raised eyebrow is a real killer too. And the yes that masks a no resulting in the gloriously stodgy soup of neutrality that paralyses so many organisations.
How are you finding your ideas are received by clients? How do you encourage the silent ones to actually make a stand? I find mischief and rebellion are helpful http://www.willtherebedonuts.com
Thanks for jumping in. Successful meetings start with top leadership. If they are open to improve everyone will joyfully follow. If leadership likes the safety of stale useless meetings they will continue. It’s usually about control.
Great post – and on the button from my experience. I’m always suspicious of the ‘regular’ meeting….the ones that are fixed in the diary. The best meetings have purpose, clarity of expectations of everyone there, and as a result energy. No hangers-on – people present must be prepared to make decisions or take ownership. Someone else mentioned stand-ups. I favour short and sweet – Agile format is good. Everyone is allowed to say 4 things (max). What am I pleased about, what am I unhappy about, what do I think we need to do next, and what is still puzzling me. No debates as they are spoken – just get all these out of everyone to begin with. very effective.
Great post. I have had experience as a participant in polite meetings, and I wholeheartedly agree, they are useless. Thanks for bringing this topic up. I believe people should trust each other, and know that the meeting is a safe place to share ideas. Otherwise, they will discuss solutions after the meeting, when it’s too late.
You hit on the central reason meetings are too polite…lack of trust. Thank you.
Totally agree with all the points in the post – of course, I’ve been to plenty of ‘honest’ meetings that share the faults of no agenda, no tasks assigned, and that were full of empty discussion, but I agree that meetings that are basically nothing but heads nodding in agreement to the Powers That Be aren’t exactly the most useful thing to have 🙂
In regards to number 6; think of direction and less about perfection.
Right! Telling your colleagues that having a meeting regularly is useless might actually have a huge and great effect on all of you. According to this Infographic, meetings are one of the common time wasters at work especially if you do it more than you need to.
Having a meeting once or twice a week might actually save more time on talking and discussing ideas and instead we could use that time wisely by putting those brilliant ideas into action.
Great post and still relevant for today. I’d like to add that good chairpersons must understand body language, eye contact and subtle signals given off conciously or not by staff. Also have a grip on opinion leaders within the team, be open enough to allow all express themselves and be quick cut anyone stirring chaos. And I quite agree, HONESTY is the best policy but in all, add wisdom.