The Death of the Informational Meeting

What should happen, and never happen, in meetings.

March 24, 2015
I’ve been picking up weak signals that meeting culture is changing. There seems to be less tolerance for bad meetings.  Nobody wants to devote their precious time to face-to-face meetings if the task could have been accomplished digitally and asynchronously. Meeting practice seems to be finally catching up with meeting understanding.  Why have an informational meeting if that information can be shared by text?  
3 Things That Should Happen in Meetings?
1. Work: Real work should happen in meetings. The people in the meeting should be given a task that can best be completed in a meeting framework. That is a task where all the relevant people are in the room, all the essential information is provided, and the product of the task can be completed in the allotted time. People like to produce. They will be happy in meetings where their efforts produce tangible results.   
2. Decisions: Things should be decided in meetings. Not put off. Not held for further review. Real, firm, and solid decisions. If decisions are made at a meeting then everybody at that meeting knows what the decision is.  If all the decision makers are at the meeting then there is no further need to bring in other opinions. Crisp decision making is essential for moving any organization forward. A well-planned, well-structure, and well-run meeting can be an excellent vehicle for decision making.
3. Debate: Meetings where issues are debated are some of the most tricky to run. The problem is that status and style tend to overpower substance and evidence. At any meeting where a decision or a course of action is being debated it is essential that titles be left at the door. Those with the strongest evidence to back their arguments should hold most sway. It is also important that all voices be brought into the debate. The ideas, opinions, experiences, and arguments of quiet people are at least as good as their more talkative colleagues. Any meeting where a debate is going to happen needs to be very carefully prepped and managed, with strong follow-through on decision making as close to the discussion as possible.
3 Things That Should Not Happen in Meetings?
1. Information Exchange: If you have a regularly scheduled informational meeting on your calendar - consider canceling it. If a meeting is all about one party updating another party on this, that or the other - move the updates to e-mail. This may sound like a radical proposal. But give it a shot. Carve out a 3 week period where you simply cancel informational meetings, and instead find asynchronous ways to have folks share information. After 3 weeks you can assess if the organization is still standing. My guess is that the amount of time that everyone gets back in their days will more than compensate for any loss of information sharing.
2. Social Bonding: If you sit back and carefully observe the dynamics of any meeting you will notice something strange. Everyone is nodding their heads  Someone speaks, everyone nods. Meetings are tribal bonding rituals.  We can’t help ourselves.  Social bonding, however, does not need to happen in the structure of a meeting. Colleagues should create non-meeting times to build these bonds.  I’m not talking about retreats or parties.  Rather, I’m advocating for more coffee chats. More going to lunch together. More quick conversations. Social bonding is best done in small groups over informal conversation. Don’t keep a meeting on the books just because you want to make sure that the team stays unified. Often, the best way to keep a team working in the same direction is to have less meetings. 
3. Power Signaling: If everyone is not careful to guard against it, meetings will quickly degenerate into opportunities for power signaling. The most senior person at a meeting will often come late. The meeting will not really start until the senior person arrives. The senior person will sit at the head of the table. The senior person will talk the most, ask the most questions, and direct the conversation. Everyone will say how much they agree with what the most senior person is saying.  Roles are important at meetings, seniority is not.  It should be clear who is organizing, running, and structuring the meeting.  Those roles can shift and change.  If your meetings are following typical status and power dynamics then it is time to change up those meetings.  
The good news is that I’m seeing a surprisingly rapid shift away from good meeting practices, and towards good meeting dynamics. Are you?
If this shift towards better meetings is real (and I’m not just either delusional or work with some really good people or both), what could explain this shift?
What would you add (or dispute) from my list of things that should happen, and should never happen, during a meeting?
How much of your time do you spend in meetings?


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