Meaningless Meetings and How to Fix Them

The underlying problem is bad governance. To address the issue, establish these three elements before scheduling. 

Meetings are notoriously one of organizational life’s most insufferable realities. U.S. companies spend more than $37 billion dollars a year on them. Employees in American companies spend more than one-third of their time in them. And 71% of senior managers view them as unproductive.

Meetings are productive and meaningful only when the people in them have a clear reason to be there, have a definitive contribution to make and advance strategic priorities together. Any meeting should be designed and linked to a broader governance plan. But too often, they are disconnected from the intentional distribution of decision rights, resources and priorities across the organization, making them unnecessary.

Meetings that aren’t part of effective governance design take on two destructive pathologies: They become “meetings as source of power” or “meetings as bottleneck.”

When meetings become a source of power, being in charge or included affords disproportionate degrees of influence and status. People justify their presence with lengthy presentations that most attendees find boring and irrelevant. When a meeting becomes a bottleneck, decisions or resources are passing through people who likely have little to contribute, usually because “they’ve always been involved.”

These are just symptoms, however. The underlying problem is bad governance. To fix these issues in your organization, establish the following three elements:

A clearly articulated mandate with defined decision rights: Regardless of the type of meeting, the scope must be clearly defined and narrowed to a few key areas. You can create charters of every level so that each team knows the area in which they can execute freely. Strategy and priorities, for example, could be allocated to the executive team. The business unit teams could focus oncustomer segmentation and marketing. With responsibilities set, you can create meeting agendas focused on what each of you needs to be doing.

A synchronized cadence: It may seem obvious, but a meeting’s frequency and allotted time must be commensurate with its charter and decision rights. Teams and task forces governing near-term priorities will need to meet more frequently for shorter durations, while those focused on longer-term priorities should meet less often for longer durations.

The right composition and metrics: Too often leaders let hierarchy define who comes to a meeting; if you are a direct report to the leader calling the meeting, you attend. Which makes everyone feel compelled to bring something to say. This is how meetings devolve into useless status updates. Only those who have something specific to contribute — expertise, authority over resources, responsibility to execute — should be included.

Meetings that are ineffective often are an indicator that they shouldn’t be occurring. To test this, I ask teams, “If you stopped meeting, who besides you would care?” If they struggle to respond, they have their answer.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at consulting firm Navalent.

Copyright 2018 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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