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2 years ago

Dissecting Dysfunctional Meetings

Meetings, meetings, meetings… Are you one of those who speak of meetings as of some uncontrollable natural disaster? Such as a snow storm, or a heat wave, or a flash flood or any other act of nature beyond human control? At times I get an impression that meetings come off exactly that way, and humans believe that it’s not in their power to get rid of meetings.

Well, meetings hardly deserve to be treated like acts of nature. Sometimes people complain that natural disasters ruin their plans, but there’s a secret pleasure in being able to use cold weather as an excuse to not commute on that day. For kids, bitter cold means no school, and they can enjoy their stay-at-home time. Some adults are happy about an excuse that gives them a chance to emulate busy activity without producing real results. Others, who have things to do, refer to meetings in the same tone as they would speak of weather mishaps, but something in the way they speak suggests that too many meetings are a real hindrance in their work.

Either way, I wonder why people meekly subdue to the rule of His Majesty Meeting and forget that meetings are not a given. There’s no such default option as meeting.  There’s no way to show a meeting to a customer. There’s no way to incorporate a meeting to user interface.

A meeting is nothing more than one of the practices for:

a) knowledge-sharing;

b) decision-making.

What makes a meeting dysfunctional? Trying to fit both a) and b) into one meeting, and using meetings for anything other than a) or b). It’s that simple, albeit not compliant with how meetings are understood generally.

Async Knowledge Sharing = A Functional Decision-Making Meeting

Case: It’s a company board meeting. Stakeholders check quarterly reports. There are many numbers, someone has analyzed the stats before the meeting, someone sees those numbers for the first time. This is a typical knowledge-sharing meeting. What will happen, most likely, if this group is supposed to come up with strategic decisions right at this very meeting?  As per the laws of cognition, the quality-thinking time interval takes about 45 min – 1 hr. With some crucial new information people need extra time to digest it, sleep on it, think about it, and then get together again for yet another meeting, only for decision-making. No, a 5-minute break will not do it. What’s really needed is to take some time away from everyone’s company to contemplate and to think. Regretfully, we don’t give much credit to the way our minds function. People sit in for hours in the same room, lose their cognitive sharp edge, and take tired decisions falling prey to groupthink.

Comment: Clearly, if stakeholders in this board studied the numbers and reports in private, in their best productive time, they would be able to come together for a compact and effective decision-making meeting. Unfortunately, people mostly forget how vital it is to make the bulk of knowledge-sharing async. At the end of the day, it all depends on the stakeholders’ being busy with the real to do’s. Young start-ups don’t have the luxury to afford such a huge time-waste as fuzzy meetings. There are too few hands to do the real work, so there’s a genuine desire to make meetings as compact as possible. Besides, it’s easy to share knowledge and stay in the loop if it’s a  <10 people start-up. However, as the company gets bigger, this urgent need to be frugal with the corporate time might be forgotten and replaced with the game called “meetings, meetings, meetings..”.

Meetings Only For Knowledge-Sharing? Hmm…

I can’t say that meetings that have the sole purpose of knowledge-sharing are completely dysfunctional. A touch of personal interaction and informal discussion will never do much harm. However, if meetings are used as a primary knowledge-sharing practice, this is a suspicious trend. It shows the lack of this async infrastructure of keeping people informed of whatever they need to be informed about. In the worst case, this might lead to burn-outs because the time carelessly thrown into meetings is ripped off from the things that really need to get done (I mean,  for those who do have such things). Emails have to be answered, code has to be written, logos and other graphics need to be designed. Another popular headline for knowledge-sharing meetings is “come up with new ideas”. The catch here is to watch out for how many ideas can a company process into execution. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world to come up with many ideas only to see them wane unfulfilled. Not only would that be a waste of everyone’s time, but the practice of shopping for ideas and then freezing them for an unknown period of time is so very treacherous and morale-killing.

The Ugliest Form of Dysfunctional Meetings

… is when someone snaps with power games and personal clashes. This is the case when a meeting is not anymore about knowledge-sharing or decision-making. First off, it means that the meeting participants prefer to get away with passive-aggressive behaviors, instead of sharing their concerns with a good composure. Meeting is the composite of the time of many people. If two participants pick up a verbal fight and throw tantrums ignoring the rest of the audience — this is an extreme example —  the meeting becomes dysfunctional and fails to fulfill its main purpose. On the other hand, the unattended personal needs of those fighters are revealed that way. But who says that this most precious commodity called “the productive uninterrupted time” of others has to be wasted like that?

Related articles:

Meetings Are…

Skype Is (not) The Limit..?

Meetings: The PGP Conjunction

Soap, Laundry and Company Boards

  • Rudy U Martinka

    You may enjoy reading my posting “King Solomon Knew How to Obtain Results From a Meeting

    Regards and good will blogging

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