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The mindlessness of meetings

Opinion & Analysis
My daughter chaired her first meeting at the age of three. True story.

My daughter chaired her first meeting at the age of three.True story.

Report by Thembe Khumalo

She pulled up her little baby furniture, summoned the grown-ups in the house and declared with a grave face: “We are now going to have a meeting.”

The worst thing about this meeting was that she proceeded to scold and complain, a clear sign of the type of adult meetings the little darling had been subjected to, and an indictment on me for the frequency with which she was exposed to such meetings.

At the time this happened, I was consulting for a client where I spent my mornings in the office and if there were meetings in the afternoon, they would allow me to take my child in with me.

She would sit quietly busying herself with her colouring book while we got on with the business of the day and it hadn’t occurred to me how much she was absorbing until this incident.

The conventions of doing business have changed so much in recent years, with the advent of email and the Internet significantly altering the methods and the speed at which we do business.

I wonder how many people in your office still remember the telex machine and how advanced and clever we thought it was back then. Many of us sat with a typewriter at our desk or with a secretary in an adjacent office who had a typewriter at her desk.

The good thing about the laboriousness of these processes was that you actually had to give some thought to the type of communication you were sending out. You didn’t mindlessly dash off multiple lines of noise and copy half the organisation. A painstakingly typed out letter prepared without the benefit of an undo button had to have both meaning and purpose.

Today we carelessly throw text messages, emails, even blog posts and tweets into cyberspace with gay abandon. We forward and copy with equal freedom and we are frustrated when the lightning speed we are accustomed to is compromised for any reason.

But the one thing that hasn’t changed that much is meetings. Who can forget the clever Schweppes ad that started with a male voice over advising, “When the board meeting gets really bored, and the minutes have been going on for hours . . .” I reckon most people who attend meetings regularly could completely identify with that particular commercial.

But what is it about meetings that makes them so painful and makes them seem so pointless at times? Reading and thinking around the subject I came up with the following short list:

Lack of purpose — The meeting has no clear agenda and people do not have an opportunity to prepare adequately as they do not know what they are preparing for Lack of direction — The meeting is held to discuss a variety of issues and member input causes discussions to digress into other areas.

A lack of decisiveness — The meeting is held and matters are discussed but no resolutions or definite decisions are taken Lack of progress — Decisions are made, but no one tracks the execution of those decision or holds specific individuals accountable for such execution.

Lack of commitment — The people attending the meeting do not prepare adequately. As a result the discussion cant progress because key parties are still not fully in the know or haven’t got the information that others need

Lack of attention — Members sit with laptops, ipads, mobile phones in front of them and proceed to attend to emails and messages as well as surfing the net during the course of the meeting. They do not pay full attention to the proceedings and are not focused on the objectives.

I want to believe that by the time my daughter chairs her next meeting the global business community will have overcome some of these challenges and meetings will have become a rare and interesting experience that people look forward to.

This week I read a post on meetings that really blew my mind. It suggested that people should only ever hold meetings with the objective of deciding and committing — nothing else. The writer, an executive coach, proposes that there should be: “No meetings to “discuss.”

  • No meetings to “update.”
  • No meetings to “review.”
  • No meetings to “inform.”
  • No meetings to “report.”
  • No meetings to “present.”
  • No meetings to “check.”
  • No meetings to “dialogue.”
  • No meetings to “evaluate.”
  • No meetings to “connect.”
  • No meetings to “think.”
  • No meetings to “consider.”
  • No meetings to “educate.”
  • No meetings to anything but “decide and commit.””

He assures the reader that by implementing this ethos an organisation can cut its meeting time by 90%. I have to agree, but I wonder how feasible the implementation of such a culture would actually be.

You would need to have sufficient confidence in one another to know that the discussing, reviewing, updating, evaluating etc that needs to happen would happen outside of the meeting and that people would have sufficient confidence to execute and keep the ball moving without waiting for the opportunity to meet and “consider”.

Shall we try it?

  • Thembe Khumalo writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to