When meetings become corporate con jobs

If you are a senior manager, you are likely to be spending most of your working hours in meetings.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Tue 15 Oct 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 15 Oct 2019, 11:30 PM

"What? Sorry I was using this time to think about something more useful." Dilbert replied when he was asked for an opinion after his coworker's lengthy discourse.  This Dilbert comic satire on the inefficiency of meetings happens to be among the top picks of its creator Scott Adams. The mind-numbing drone of someone presenting during a meeting is all too familiar. This is exactly how corporate meetings often are. Someone is speaking, but hardly anyone is listening.
It is well known that executives spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings in large organisations. Research shows that the time spent in meetings has increased over the years. Numbers range from six hours to 23 hours a week per attendee. If you are a senior manager, you are likely to be spending most of your working hours in meetings.
Ever since the business world discovered team collaboration as the elixir for the demands of globalised companies, meetings have become the heartbeat of an organisation. Entire industries of technologies such as web and video conferencing emerged to support staff meetings. Meetings became all the more critical as teams became globally distributed. Meetings forged team cohesion. Now we have what we call too much of a good thing. The weekly, fortnightly or monthly staff meetings can range from the insufferable to the mundane. Sales meetings are possibly the most closely tied to an organisation's business. But they could easily degenerate into bloody scenes where an executive gets verbal flogging for not meeting his or her sales forecast. The lowest on the productivity ladder are meetings to plan for other meetings. A criminal waste of everyone's time.  Meetings are turning into corporate con jobs on an industrial scale. They are making organisations inward looking. They are also sending the business into a nonproductive tailspin. As executives rush from one meeting to another, from one conference call to another, talent is being frittered away and precious time is spent just looking busy.
What seemed like the most potent pill for stimulating innovation may just be a placebo. Had Einstein been busy attending meetings, he could never have indulged in thought experiments that gave the world the Theory of Relativity. Deep thinking has taken a hit and so has individual work. This is what a Harvard Business School and Boston University study discovered.
A lot of time is spent in setting up meetings; in following the elaborate meeting rituals of rounding up attendees, asking people to mute their phones, getting the lighting right and calling IT to connect laptops to the projector. We may put a human on Mars before laptops will instantly and universally connect to conference room projectors. Sometimes, the formal setting of meetings muzzles free speech, ironically the very reason why the meeting was called in the first place. This is why water cooler chats were a great place for an exchange of ideas. The informal setting and positive body language put people at ease, making them more open to a healthy discussion. The old water cooler chats have morphed into stand-up meetings that allow teams to get into a quick huddle. All the meeting paraphernalia is done away with.
But even IT teams that are familiar with daily scrum meetings don't use them often enough. During the early tech boom in the Silicon Valley, offices of Intel and other technology companies were consciously designed to have long hallways to foster discussions. Modern offices are designed for a more informal exchange of ideas and information, but are we using them well? We can build the most hip and fancy office, but we still need to build the culture of short meetings.
We need to ask ourselves - do we need as many formal meetings? Senior executives must understand the pulse of their organisation. They must assess if too many individuals are attending too many meetings in which they don't really contribute. They should find automated metrics to capture the chatter within meetings and triangulate the findings with the stated objectives and format of the meetings. We need to effectively catch junior executives' suggestions that have seeds of innovation in them and don't necessarily trickle up to decision makers. AI technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and knowledge graphs are useful. Amazon's Jeff Bezos has three rules to make meetings productive. First, he uses the well-known two-pizzas rule - have just as many attendees who can be fed by two pizzas. Second, instead of power points, he asks his executives to prepare a two-pager memo that tells a detailed story. Great memos are written and rewritten so that the recommendations and the plan become lucid. The third rule is to read them in silence as one would do in a study hall.
We certainly cannot do away with meetings. But they need to be reined in and constantly assessed to ensure that they don't take over the organisation, but instead the organisation puts them to good use.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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