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Meeting Mania

Saturday, July 1, 2006 - 15:50

As businesses get swamped by meetings, Deborah Tarrant discusses ways to make the office meeting more than just a ritual that bored executives revel in.

Robin Young has taken to blocking out "sacred time" in his diary. That's not secret private time, but time to do his work managing Microsoft Australia's Information Worker business for large customers. "Do not book over!" demands his note to self and others. Without this imperative, he says, meetings could devour his entire working week. "I've had to make a conscious effort to identify the meetings that are really going to drive my business," he says.

Young estimates he spends around 70 per cent of his working life in meetings. It used to be more, until he introduced the sacred interludes.

"To maintain your integrity in an organisation, you need to meet deadlines. Allowing time to do work, and not just talk about it, is vital," says Young, who highlights the importance of time management and the need to prioritise meetings - opting in or out according to each meeting's relevance to his job. Young meets with new recruits on a nearly routine basis as part of the company's New Employee Orientation Program.

"The more dynamic and people focused organisations are, the more 'matrix-ed' they become," observes Young. "We operate in a culture of consensus, which is a good thing. But gaining buy-in can slow down the decision-making process and you can end up generating more and more meetings."

Of course, Young is not the first manager to take action after realising that meetings had effectively taken over his business life. Who can forget the spate of stand-up meetings attempted by trendsetting executives a few years ago, in an attempt to abbreviate this evil necessity? It seems the world of work is in the throes of a frenzy for meetings.

A 2005 study of 300 Australian employees and managers commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by the research company The Leading Edge found the number of face-to-face meetings has increased year by year, irrespective of industry segment.

The average time surveyed individuals spent in meetings accounted for approximately half a normal working year. Furthermore, many participants in the study considered one in five of their face-to-face meetings to be "avoidable".

"Most companies have yet to think of disciplined ways to network," confirms Lynette Glendinning who heads the high-powered PALM Consulting Group. Glendinning has watched the proliferation of meetings while working with CEOs of large corporations and heads of government departments and agencies over the past 17 years. "When anyone wants to harness effort across boundaries, the first response is always to call a meeting," she says.

Indeed, in a corporate world where teamwork predominates - often bringing project groups together from disparate parts of organisations - the meeting proves the easiest way to build cohesiveness, reports Dr Kerrie Unsworth, who heads Queensland University of Technology's Work Effectiveness Research Program. "People like teamwork. They like having others to work with and share responsibility." The "yuck factor" invades, she says, when people feel they're attending relentless back-to-back meetings and not accomplishing anything substantial.

Meetings are among the best and worst of devices in contemporary corporate life, opines Sharon Davis, Human Resources Director of AMP Financial Services. "They are absolutely necessary for effective communication, governance and decision making, yet they take up so much time in our busy working lives."

Davis has done plenty of thinking on the subject. In 2003, AMP set about specifically addressing the meeting explosion as part of a company-wide high performance drive. Three years on, it has developed some practical strategies to eliminate the blow-out; for example canning "on-site" off sites (going to far-flung places for prolonged meetings), adjusting electronic diaries to half-hour time frames to eliminate the notion that corporate confabs inevitably take 60 minutes, and installing casual areas for quick, impromptu catch-ups along with purpose-designed meeting rooms.

Putting a lid on the number of meetings held in the organisation is a conscious part of the annual planning process, says Davis.

"We quickly worked out that the key to fewer and slicker meetings is clear accountabilities and good communication channels so that meetings didn't become a proxy for information sharing or a substitute for good decision making."

One tactic has been ramping up communication so that multiple meetings are not required to tell people what's happening, a common and often unnecessary reason for getting together. The company's top leaders convene once every six weeks to discuss key business issues. While for everyday matters, an active intranet allows people to find out what's going on.

Clear accountabilities allow people to understand what decisions they are able to make and precisely who they need to consult, says Davis.

"We encourage people to continually ask, 'Do we need to have a meeting, or will a short phone call do?', 'Do I need to attend that meeting?', 'Can I add value?', or 'Can we disband that steering committee, now that it has served its purpose?'"

It seems teamwork culture has developed a double edge. In most large organisations, no one knows how many meetings are held, and who goes; and in a number of meetings every week, suggests Glendinning, most people engage in some sort of social loafing, "that is, they are being busy without really having to focus or produce anything". This is prevalent in "regular" meetings.

Knowing when and how to hold a meeting properly is crucial, if commonly overlooked in management teaching, says Glendinning who runs executive leadership management programs and coaches 12 CEOs.

What constitutes a good meeting?

Size matters. If possible, keep numbers around five to seven, say the group dynamics experts.

All meetings should have focus, discipline, structure and one clear purpose. "People shouldn't be able to call on others' time without a good reason," says Glendinning.

A meeting can have a number of purposes: to hear what the boss has to say, to share information across teams and divisions, to seek advice (although the advisers may not be part of the final decision process), or to make decisions and plan action.

While brainstorming or ideas generation requires a different format, Hamish McLennan, CEO of advertising agency George Patterson Y&R (who estimates he spends 75 per cent of his time in any given week travelling to or attending meetings), says even "blue sky" creative meetings need strong definition to avoid being hijacked by the subjective. "Younger people are invited to participate and observe, but a meeting needs to be controlled by someone experienced, so it doesn't drag on and waste time, and we always wrap up with actions," he says.

For participants, understanding the endgame or required outcomes is as important as knowing why they are there. "Making the goals known at the outset stops meetings careening out of control and going off on tangents," says Unsworth. If a tangent turns out to be important, then another time and date should be set to discuss it, she says.

Glendinning suggests a repeated problem is using too much of the meeting for knowledge sharing, which could be done by other means, such as circulating a briefing paper or emailing others with critical information prior to the meeting. Another is filling an hour-long meeting with key individuals whose relevance only comes into play in the last few minutes.

Young prefers to actively undertake real work in meetings - and not just discuss ideas and make decisions - compiling a presentation of the outcomes. "So you're building that presentation while the meeting is happening," he says. People leave with greater satisfaction and a feeling of achievement.

AMP's monthly executive meetings are formal. The agenda is very structured, papers are distributed well ahead and everything is read in advance. PowerPoint presentations are banned. "Executives prepare well for these meetings so that when people address a topic the discussion focuses on the key decisions that need to be made rather than educating each other," says Davis.

Some element of formality is essential. The role of a chairperson is vital for a structured group conversation, says Glendinning. "A good chair pays attention to the best use of group time and understands how to progress a meeting and whether it is critical to work multilaterally or whether the work could be done elsewhere."

However, formal is not everyone's style. Microsoft's Young abhors the impersonal approach. "Let's face it, a bad meeting can ruin your day."

Indeed, the laid-back egalitarianism of Australians sometimes works against the efficient meeting process. Alongside the notion that everyone has to have input, there's the characteristic style that Glendinning terms "barbecue management", where supposed decision-makers position themselves as everyone's best friend. "Many managers don't like to be seen to be taking command and this can leave the meeting with no structure or direction," she says.

On the other hand, a meeting run by a heavy hitter with a style that's too authoritative, risks plummeting a corporate gathering into "group think", cautions Unsworth, and this can be just as counterproductive.

While in a strict sense, good meetings must hone in on organisational goals and outcomes, fundamentally they are all about people. The significance of the social role of the meeting should not be overlooked, insists Dr Tony Grant, the Founder and Director of the University of Sydney's Coaching Psychology Unit. He says meetings fall into three clear categories from the manager's or executive's perspective: the urgent meetings when there's not enough time to be productive; scheduled, bureaucratic ones where keeping frustration at bay is often paramount; and those for making "social" connections with co-workers, bosses or even the board.

Taking the opportunity to shoot the breeze with the gang may seem inefficient time-wise for those with a mounting backlog of work, but it's definitely useful for mutual understanding and bonding, says Unsworth. There's the informal chance to discuss workloads or for managers to raise their profiles.

The truth is that all meetings have implicit and explicit agendas, says Grant. There's the one on the table, and the secret strivings of all the individuals in attendance.

They can present big moments for "impression managers" who actively control the way they appear to others...and when it comes to making an impact on the boss or the board, meetings can and do adopt a strong element of theatre, he says - a type of corporate "haka" commonly takes place.

"At the same time, it is a chance to look the best possible," he says.

It may not be the meeting's defined purpose, but it's important to be mindful of how you appear to others, advises Grant who recalls one multi-tasking partner in a law firm who succeeded in getting up everyone's nose by regularly reading the newspaper in meetings.

The message is to respect everyone's time. Reading, playing with laptops and mobile phones, or conducting private side conversations are named as popular distractions, time sappers and irritants.

Running late is another perennial corporate etiquette blunder. Again, Robin Young found a diary solution in planning habitual 45-minute meetings.

As a general rule, he has found that's enough time for discussion, and some to spare, to make it to the next meeting.