The dictionary defines a meeting as “an assembly of people, especially the members of a society or committee, for discussion or entertainment”. I think that rather underplays the major instigator of meetings, i.e. businesses. Most participants in business are not a committee. Peter Drucker once said “Meetings are a symptom of poor organisation”. But there are legitimate reasons for meetings, the key two being communication (to make sure everyone has the same story) and decision making (to ensure everyone who is entitled has input). But we all say, and sometimes mean, that we hate meetings. So what goes wrong?
I have also been discussing presentations recently, bemoaning the boredom that comes from so many of them. The problem can be traced to several causes, yet for me the most significant one is that the presenter isn’t talking about things that I want to hear. We’ve all been to conferences where the marketing slides dominate any good story the presenter has to tell. And by the time the odd nugget or two comes along we’ve all switched off – or rather these days switched on, as it has never been more easy to be elsewhere through a phone or tablet.
I think that meetings also fail to tell us what we want to hear. Many communications meetings are repeating the same things. A monthly “all company” meeting, unless the organisation is in complete turmoil, rarely has enough new material to fill an hour. (Why do we always set timings by the hour or half hour? Why not have a 13 minute meeting? It might be all that is needed to convey the information or make the decision, and won’t need padding out.) Many people present have heard some or all of the detail before, and all wish they could get on with the stack of things they have to do. Yet stop holding those meetings and paranoia sets in. There is frequently a belief that information is being withheld. In my experience it rarely is – other than because of the tedious nature of the minutia passing across people’s desks. I once tried an experiment – before ubiquitous email, and in an organisation I ran which was no more paranoid that the norm, and was doing well. Despite passing around every memo and piece of paper that crossed my desk, some people still though I was not circulating everything, that there must be more. Very quickly no-one was looking at the material, and I stopped passing it round.
This ties in with the slight sense of disappointment which can be experienced when talking up a new role, especially a promotion within the same company. Once the excitement has died down that at this level you can make a difference, it becomes apparent that the role is not so very different to the one you held before. There is nothing dramatically new going on, nothing you are now a part of that you were excluded from before.
And this is the heart of the problem with meetings. We have to accept that this is all there is. Nothing more, no conspiracy of silence, nothing exciting, little new. We talk about the speed of business change increasing, how quickly new things are adopted and then become redundant. But the reality is that the people and processes within an organisation to make those things happen don’t change much nor very quickly. There is no silver bullet to fix the boring minutia of day to day corporate life. And meetings and presentations reflect that.