Stupid meetings, how to eliminate them?

Many times, meetings are used as a catwalk of egos where participants try to show off and, at the same time, take care not to be devoured. How can we eliminate these stupid meetings and only keep the productive ones?

More and more business executives and collaborators complain about the time required for meetings. Calendars full of long meetings scheduled more and more in advance, agendas and schedules that are difficult to meet, and agreements that, even when signed in blood, are not fulfilled. However, it seems that we cannot operate without them. Meetings seem to be, in today’s companies, a necessary evil. What do we usually do? First, we decide which of the meetings we have scheduled simultaneously we will not attend, send someone else or we will simply miss. And second, in the meeting room that we do attend, we try to have two or three meetings at the same time: one by e-mail, another by WhatsApp and the third, if there is any focus left, the one in the room where we are physically present.

Much has been invested in trying to have more efficient meetings: rules of behavior, posters reminding us of the guidelines we all already know, tools, forms, assigning timekeepers or rigorous facilitators. In recent years, several very useful tools have been developed to hold efficient meetings and avoid “meetingitis”.

These practices serve us behind closed doors, once we have already been trapped by the invitation to the meeting. In this article, we aim to go one step further: how to detect unnecessary meetings (in order to eliminate them) and how to turn necessary meetings into effective decision-making meetings.

Stupid meetings vs. Smart meetings

Many discussions during meetings are based on people, their stories, their personal interests or their political intentions, all masked under some pretext of business. Ego-dominated meetings are exhausting, long, and unproductive. More time is spent looking back and criticizing what others have done than looking forward and defining directions. I call these, “people meetings” or simply “stupid meetings”.

On the contrary, meetings that look to the future, that deal with decisions that will affect the business and that challenge how to add value, will not only be much more productive in terms of business, but are also usually much shorter and generate more solid exchange agreements. I call these “decision-making meetings”, or simply “Smart Meetings”.

People meetings are often easily recognized, not only because of their duration, but also because they are ruled by egos. Power symbols are usually clear and present, and efforts are aimed at trying to get out of that Roman arena as well as possible. In general, in these types of meetings, it is not clear whether what is being evaluated is a specific project or the person presenting it. Presentations often seem like sales pitches trying to convince someone. This commercial effort, this logic of buying and selling, would not generate a major problem if it were not that, in general, in these situations, it is the “best sold” projects that end up being approved, and not necessarily the best projects.

Endless PowerPoints, full of animations, explanatory videos, music, illustrations, prints of all kinds and colors and, above all, countless backups, are some of the characteristics of these meetings. The creativity, time -and the budget- to achieve this sale would seem to be infinite.

But is it necessary to sell ideas within the organization? Competitiveness for resources can be a great motivating mechanism outside the company, but many times, inside, it does not seem to be the most effective method and is certainly not the most efficient.

How to recognize stupid meetings

While customs vary by organization, in general, there are two clear types of stupid meetings that are repeated very frequently.

The rotating salesperson. They are usually long meetings, lasting a day or half a day, where several “presenters” parade in front of a team of “reviewers” who sit there all day watching the different vendors of ideas go by, listening to their presentations and trying to put together and make sense of everything received. Some companies call them Monthly Meetings (Monthlies), Review Sessions, Committee Sessions, Review of projects, brands, products, etc. Whatever the name, the dynamic is that of a traveling salesman trying to sell something to a buyer. The U-shaped table is typical in these formats and, of course, the logic of power governs the spot where each one sits.

The simultaneous buyer. This is a very different sales meeting format. Usually, more frequent and shorter (lasting one to three hours), where a team from the same area is addressed in sequence by their boss. We can find them under the name of Staff Meetings, Status Meetings, Weekly Meetings (Weeklies) or directly known by the name of the day they are usually held: the Monday meeting.

Though the format is different from the previous, the logic of buying and selling is still present. In this case, however, a single buyer simultaneously receives several sellers and questions them one by one; they also tend to look back rather than forward, seek approvals and an attempt is made to avoid being exposed to peers as a result of any failure to comply.

Decision-making Meetings: Synapse in an organizational brain

As in any organic process, the success of the organism’s behavior lies in the coordination between the parts that compose it, in the interactions and connections that make it a whole: synapse.

A company’s governance system or decision-making system (its brain) requires the coordinated participation of different components that, by contributing their knowledge and complementary perspectives, will generate a decision of higher value.

A decision could be made individually, inside the mind of a single person and without the involvement of third parties, but without a doubt, a group decision is in many ways superior to an individual one. A greater richness of vision, greater creative diversity and a notable subsequent commitment are some of the characteristics that make the quality of a group decision often superior to that of an individual one.

By contrast, individual decisions tend to be quicker and require less coordination. To capture its value, it is key to train group decision-making so that its speed approaches individual decisions.

The connection between the parties must ensure a correct transmission of existing information and generation of new information that materializes complementarity and agreements. This synapse is usually formed in two ways, based on the cultural rigidity or flexibility of the organization. At each end we encounter:

In rigid cultures: through procedures. The parties have connection parameters defined by procedure, and meetings are only used to pass the baton from one stage to another.

Meetings are instances of approval (doors or gates) within a larger process. They generally work very well in organizations with rigid formal cultures, with strong manufacturing origins, or in more operational situations.

In these cases, if the company operates with a logic of buying and selling ideas, the review team becomes a gatekeeper that exercises veto power by letting through or rejecting proposals that are presented to it, based on the compliance with the parameters or procedures.

Instead, these same gate meetings in a decision-making logic imply that presenters will not sell their project, but will have to bring different alternatives, weighed and evaluated, so that the reviewers can exercise their true and complete power of decision by choosing one among several.

In flexible cultures: through meetings. The weakness of internal processes means that collaborators end up using meetings to force parties to come together and seek convergence. A decision-making meeting, if well prepared and coordinated, can allow participants to express points of view, agree on criteria among themselves, propose alternatives and reach a unified vision.

The logic of buying and selling in these cultures of low rigidity will encourage each presenter to shape their presentation to the format that best suits them for its sale, trying to surprise or astonish the reviewers; and in the best of cases, even receiving applause, regardless of the real quality of the project they are proposing. In this format, there is no limit to the sale, nor to the selling display or to the attempt to surprise. There is a maxim in the discipline of decision making: “Decisions are the enemy of surprises”. If one seeks decisions to be made, surprising others will probably only lead to a defensive reaction, an attempt to delay or postpone the decision, at least until it can be thought carefully or reviewed with others.

In an organizational logic of decision, these meetings should be organized in such a way that participants are not surprised, receive the key information in advance and have had the chance to review it with other people involved in the decision.

Differentiating people meetings from decision-making meetings will be the first step to identifying those meetings that really do add value. Now, to finally refine our management routines, the key at meetings will be to break with the buying and selling logic, avoid surprises and ensure that the decisions made at meetings truly add value to the business.

Gastón Francese
Partner at Tandem.

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