Meetings: Work? Or just a waste of time?

Decision-free zones are drains on productivity.

01 September 2010, by Tracey Swanepoel

"Are you lonely? Bored? Nothing to do? Well... no problem, just call a meeting! You'll get to sit around with your mates, get coffee and biscuits brought to you and discuss nothing of any consequence. Best of all, you don't have to do any real work and before you know it, it'll be time to head down to the pub."

I remember this poster from my early days in advertising and lately it has been playing in my head like an irritating, albeit relevant, ABBA "song worm".

It seems like meetings have become the holding pattern of corporate life - a safe, decision-free zone to hang out in, ironically at a time when we desperately need to land and tackle some very pressing issues.

Sitting through a particularly mind numbing meeting recently gave me the opportunity to reflect on the biggest culprits - the meetings that we all dread but grin and bear in equal measure, the ones that give all other meetings a bad name.

First to mind is the infamous strategic off-site/workshop/bosberaad. There's not enough space to go into it here (see Bosberaad Babelaas for more) but suffice to say that these are more often remembered for the spectacular bushveld/wine farm setting than for the quality of the decision-making. All told usually a massive waste of time and money.

Then there's the "It's that time of the month/week/day/quarter". We get through these only with BlackBerry or laptop lifelines to alleviate the boredom. I know it's an old joke but for those that have to sit through so-called "Bored" Meetings... it must have crossed your mind!

The chart topper is an abomination I call the "Parktown Prawn". It's hideous and worst of all (like most Parktown Prawns) it simply will not die! The good old "thanks everyone" just doesn't cut it. There's always another comment, another viewpoint, something else to think about. About the only thing worse than this is the "Extended Parktown Prawn", a regular get together where the majority of the time is spent re-discussing what was discussed at the last meeting.

It's not surprising that in a Microsoft survey of 38 000 people across the globe (at least we are not uniquely unproductive in SA) inefficient meetings topped the list as the biggest waste of time, and the most destructive force in terms of employee morale and productivity.

The missing ingredient

Despite all of the above, it's not the idea of the meeting that's the problem. Getting a whole lot of people together to express their ideas, voice their opinions or share facts is a good one. The missing ingredient is a decision that results in action. Decision-making comes right back to the leadership and strategy arena. Meetings sans an outcome or a decision are best described by my opening quote. They are an undemanding waste of time and an incredibly frustrating drain on productivity.

Not deciding is also a "decision"

"Decidere" is Latin for "cut off", in other words - choice. A leader that cannot choose where to allocate resources is not a leader at all. He/she is advertently or inadvertently putting the company into a holding pattern, which in itself is a choice (think of all the resources that are wasted while we fly around in circles). There are more than a few SA businesses and parastatals that come to mind here...

Why are we so afraid of making decisions? Are we paralysed by corporate governance restrictions? Are we carried away by democratic ideology or politically correct consultation? Are we just too scared to do something when there's a chance that it could be wrong or fail? Ironically the more we discuss (and don't decide and act) the slower we react, the less responsive we are to the environment and the more we put the business at risk. As one particularly blunt executive puts it "any decision is better than no decision at all". Because no matter what business you are in, the game is about your batting average. Protecting your wicket at all costs and scoring no runs is simply pointless (even the non-cricketers should get this one!).

What goes wrong ... and can we make it right?

All we do is "talk talk"

Only 12% of executives believe that their top management meetings consistently produce decisions on important strategic or organisational issues. Making the decision the starting point of the meeting via a decision agenda as opposed to a discussion agenda focuses the meeting towards a well-considered decision that will result in action.

Numbers speak louder than words

Shockingly, one multinational banking firm spent more time each year selecting its promotional holiday card than debating their African investment strategy (where they had made significant capital investment). Setting an agenda which prioritises the numbers (i.e. quantifies the value implications of each decision) is guaranteed to make for time well spent.

Sloppy follow through

In the (potentially unlikely) event of a decision, making it stick is often a bridge too far. There are as many interpretations as meeting delegates. Communication (or often non-communication) to the rest of the company may be inconsistent and uncoordinated. Taking time to explicitly agree on "what we have decided" and then specifying the resources (time, talent, money) needed and the outcome expected, will make a difference.

The bottom line is if a meeting doesn't feel like real work, we have to ask ourselves - isn't there something better we should be doing with our time?

Read published article on MoneyWeb site