The Missing Ingredient that Makes Meetings Drag


What can be done in your company to conduct fewer meetings of shorter length but higher quality? The fact is, bad ones take up precious collective time, diverting attention away from other activities.  Most complain that they represent a significant source of corporate waste.

A few years ago, I assisted in conducting an assessment centre for a client. This activity involved stress-testing the skills of a group of managers-in-training. We, the judges, observed them closely as they undertook difficult simulations, ranking their development needs in order to provide precise, individual feedback.

One of the exercises was intended to rate their ability to take charge, and structure a meeting. We seated the cohort of about twenty around a table and provided a written description of an issue. Their brief deliberately excluded even a hint of an intention.

For half an hour, they talked, unsure what the panel of observers expected. Perhaps they imagined we were looking at their interpersonal skills. No problem there – they quickly established a friendly, open tone.

However, never once did anyone question or suggest a purpose, intent or meaning for the discussion. Instead, they were happy to talk in circles, sharing a meaningless chat on company time.

Perhaps this never happens in your organization, but I suspect that you can relate. Have you ever walked out of a marathon meeting wondering what just happened? You saw a lot of words passing back and forth, but felt like something was missing: No new tasks? No accountability? No real promises? No due dates?

Somewhere, we have come to settle for a mediocre result: it’s enough to feel good at the end of an expensive gathering of busy people without having anything tangible to show for it. The cost in managerial and professional time? An abomination.

While some may say it all reflects a lack of discipline, I prefer Occam’s Razor: the most likely answer to a hard question is the most obvious. The simplest explanation is that when essential steps are skipped at the very start of a meeting, there’s no quick way to recover.

Is your company on a campaign to cut this ubiquitous form of waste? One basic approach is to implement the three steps of P.A.L.

  1. P – “Purpose”

The clearer the definition of success, the shorter the meeting. Skip it all together, and watch the time investment bloat, then slip down the drain.

In the stress-test I mentioned earlier, many participants shared that they wondered about the purpose but decided not to say anything. This left each person free to pursue his/her individual agenda, which was a guaranteed way to add more time and effort.

I advocate writing the objective on a wall for medium to large groups so that every conversant can point to it whenever needed. But often, that’s not enough. If you end up pointing to it frequently, consider it a sign that you may have skipped a step.

For example, you could be tempted to skimp on this activity because “everyone knows what the purpose is.” Instead of being impatient, take a deep breath. This is not a solo effort. Don’t dare move on to the next point before being satisfied that attendees are on the same page.

Tip: If the purpose is “the exact same as last time” then call a complete stop; either cancel or redesign the activity.

  1. A – “Agenda”

If the first step addresses the “Why” the second (and third) address the “How”.

What are the topics of discussion that will enable the meeting to accomplish the objective? Given the fact that every well-designed meeting has a time constraint, a decision must be made about what will, and will not, be discussed. Allow a consensus to form around the duration required for each topic.

  1. L – “Logistics”

Beyond the agenda there are often other requirements. There should be ground rules of engagement, as well as other practical matters such as ensuring the smallest attendance possible.

This is also a good moment to announce what’s being done differently in this meeting to improve quality. Keeping participants on the edge is important so that no-one is allowed to cruise to an unremarkable, mediocre finish.

Consider the cumulative cost of all meetings which end in this way. Unfortunately, most companies would rather cut payroll than address these issues. Why? Executives find it easier to cut heads than lead a collective behavior change which requires them to act differently.

In summary, PAL is by no means a complete list of all the points needed for a meeting’s success. However, I suggest these are core, mandatory elements which are most likely to destroy quality if excluded. Attend to them on a wide scale and your company can boost every single employee’s productivity.



Why Boards Need Their Own HR


Recent headlines are rife with reports of board members in trouble. Via poor actions or inaction, they have made deadly mistakes with awful consequences to themselves, sponsors and stakeholders. With their reputations in tatters, they resign, hoping to survive a scandal they helped to create. But are they always guilty of wrongdoing?

In fact, most organizations put board members in a precarious position. While the average staff member benefits from the nearby presence of human resource expertise, the same can’t be said of boards. Unfortunately, most people believe HR is only needed at lower levels. The implicit premise? “You shouldn’t be on a board if you don’t have the requisite skills.”

Perhaps, at some point in the past this was a safe assumption. Today, boards which are made up of (mostly) men in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who have known each other for years are anachronisms. The fact is, research shows that they are more likely to make bad decisions.

Recently, California passed a law requiring all public corporate boards to include women. This is no idle requirement as numerous studies show that diversity at this level improves performance.

In like manner, boards picked from the Old Boys Network will probably bring obsolete knowledge and stale skills. They just haven’t kept up with the times, exemplified by the 2018 guidelines for selecting boards issued by the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service. The document enumerates best practices that would, if ever implemented, produce an unforeseen high quality of governance.

This solves one problem but leaves another begging. What should Jamaican private sector companies do about dysfunctional boards?  The odds are high that the kind of trouble they face isn‘t technical, but human. What can be done?

  1. Get a critical mass to agree an issue exists

The initial challenge may be the hardest. Many board members have had little or no recent soft-skills training and it shows in the way they go about tackling issues. For example, most prefer to jump immediately into problem-solving activities, even when that approach has failed them in the past.

If a single member points out this fact and suggests that a new process be used, she is often ignored in the heat of the moment. “Navel-gazing – we don’t have time for that!” Yet, with the right perspective, it’s easy to see such an intervention for what it is: an appeal to enter a “meta-conversation”.

Aware individuals use this tactic to step outside the “What” (or content) of a discussion to examine the “How”: the way the conversation is being undertaken. As a tool for improvement, this soft skill is a critical one for boards to learn. It should be triggered whenever there‘s an impasse.

Unfortunately, being able to see the value of this particular suggestion is just a tiny step. In real-life meetings, people who try to intervene in this manner are rarely successful because they are acting alone. Furthermore, board members often use the same words to mean different things. When the discrepancy isn‘t clarified with a timely meta-conversation, conversations go in circles. Participants get tired and frustrated, eventually believing that the board’s failure is enduring.

It‘s not. A day of sound training would give them the keys to shorter meetings and quicker problem-solving.

  1. Getting help

Even after clarifying the problem at this level, some boards resist the idea of recruiting a trained, neutral party. They are embarrassed, thinking that a group of “Big Men” should be able to solve its own problems.

Once they get over their egos, an invited outsider can perform a transparent diagnosis that raises everyone’s understanding. This helps boards define additional skill and knowledge gaps the future is guaranteed to exacerbate. With gaps identified, board members can consciously place themselves in states of discomfort to learn these missing skills.

For example, most boards rely on voting. They see the technique as a time-saving way to make decisions, compared to trying for total agreement.

However, there is another alternative which can be used: “alignment”. It’s defined as a willingness to support a proposal even with doubts and misgivings. Some characterize it as a decision to move forward with an option which generates the fewest objections.

Picking up this practice isn‘t easy, although it’s shown to produce better outcomes. Expect an immediate struggle to ensue if your board decides to invest in this technique for its own good.

These simple examples point to a state of continuous and aggressive learning board members must assume if they hope to stay relevant. Unfortunately, when they lapse into prolonged periods of comfort around soft skills they invite the worst: the failure of companies and a major loss to stakeholders.