Ten reasons meetings are killing your business

Here’s a question most of us have faced in our careers: how long would you be prepared to wait in reception if you arrive to find that your meeting is starting late? 10 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour, even? 

Little problems always point to big problems. Chronic lateness can point to a lack of discipline in a culture or an ability to prioritise. Worse, it can signify an unhealthy desire to exert passive-aggressive control over others. Worse still, a deliberate lack of punctuality suggests disrespect and an underlying belief that someone’s time is not important. A business whose meetings routinely run late is undermining its ability to be responsive, resilient and innovative.

Are your meetings prompt, priority-focused and productive? They need to be. According to the HBR, meetings now swallow up nearly 23 hours a week for the average executive. (To put it another way: halve your total salary bill and that’s the approximate cost of your meetings.)

The debate about meeting productivity often misses the point that all businesses need to talk to each other. But whether a business is talking to itself in the right way is a question that doesn’t get asked well enough, often enough.

The use and abuse of meetings tells you a lot about how well a business is being run. Here are the ten signs of bad meetings. 

1. Carrying dead weight. Do your meetings carry lots of people whose contribution might be charitably described as ‘minimal’? Imagine you were paying for everyone to attend your meeting, in real time, in cash. If the honest answer is that your money might be better spent elsewhere, your business might lack an ability to prioritise.

2. Presentation not conversation. The currency of contemporary business is PowerPoint. Like Bitcoin, this currency can seesaw wildly in value. In general, problem-solving relies on open, honest discussion. Reading bullet points off a chart rarely provides this. An over-reliance on presentation can point to decision-making paralysis.

3. Giving introverts no voice. Introverts are often the most creative thinkers in any group–but keeping their thoughts and ideas to themselves helps no-one. If your meetings don’t bring introverts out of their shell, your business may be failing to capitalise on the productive capacity of some of its most valuable assets.

4. Failing to understand that silence is golden. Silence is often the sound of thought happening and it isn’t awkward–unless you are creating a context in which it is. Another way of putting it: good conversations don’t need to be relentless ones. Fear of silence points to fear of conflict and fear of the unknown. Both are significant performance inhibitors.

5. Tolerating showboating or pointless contrariness. Arguments can be constructive. In fact, getting good at disagreement is a major enabler of organisational performance. But showboating is not disagreement, it’s exercise for the ego. An organisation that fails to get showboaters walking the plank is undermining its ability to perceive problems clearly.

6. Allowing meetings to go on for too long. Short is good: people are not psychologically programmed for marathon conversations. Clearly, not all decisions are immediate but rather than a 60-minute meeting about eight things, might it be better to think about holding eight micro-meetings that last six minutes, with short breaks in between? Failure to think laterally about how time is used predicts failure to create the conditions for high performance.

7. Operating to no agenda, or a bad one. The agenda is one of the most misunderstood items in business. A list of topics will not get you that far, for the simple reason that they lack context. What are your objectives? How is this meeting contributing to them? Equally importantly, what could go wrong in the room? Negotiating the agenda while in the meeting suggests an inability to think clearly about which problems need solving.

8. Agreeing no action points, failing to document them or follow them up. File this under ‘basic survival threat’.

9. Failing to think about different meeting modes. What applies in a brainstorm doesn’t apply in a sales presentation. But how often are you imposing the same meeting structure on different types of conversations, or expecting the same results from different meeting modes? Failure to segment meetings predicts failure to operate efficiently.

10. Playing the same old roles. A bit like families at Christmas, people in meetings cleave to type. There’s the patriarch, the jester, the down-to-earth questioner and so on. If you can describe your role in meetings in four words or fewer, you are limiting your ability to contribute. “I’m Mr Common Sense” is all very well and ego-nourishing, but sipping into these roles is often counterproductive. It predicts an inability to think differently. 

If any of the above apply, your meetings aren’t working as well as they could be. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

And if you’re on the outside, what will be your response the next time you get left waiting in reception? (For those wondering, the correct answer is: leave after 10 minutes, then send them this article.)