On meetings

Different people use meetings in different ways, and dysfunctional meetings are as often a product of clashes of intention as they are clashes of purpose or personality. Let’s ignore, for now, those one-on-one meetings, staff check-ins or networking calls and rapid-fire stand-ups when, of course, some preparation is needed. I’m focusing instead on those meetings that are usually organised around a core project or work-stream. 

Specifically, and given most of us are working on multiple projects/work-streams at any one time, meetings become valuable – and chunky – spaces in the calendar. So imagine for now that the following relates to sessions 1.5 – 3 hours long. 

For meetings that form a regular part of a project, my approach is similar to the average runner starting a marathon – there is little point in wasting energy warming up, when the first few miles will do that for you. Why spend time prepping for a meeting when the meeting itself is long enough without adding to it unnecessarily. Part of the opening salvo is to catch back up with people and catch back up with the project itself, getting my head into the space, remembering where we had got to, bringing everyone up to speed with progress and ensuring we re all on the same page. This is the Meeting as Warm Up then Work approach, one I use a lot. 

But this approach clashes with those who have already done their warm up and arrive at the meeting prepared for action. They are likely to find such initial callisthenics a total waste of time and an indication that those in the Meeting as Warm Up then Work (MAWUTW) camp as poorly organised time-wasters. However the MAWUTW camp can see the Meeting as Work (MAW) folk as cold efficiency maximisers at the expense of the joy and humanity of the work itself. 

For meetings that are single issue, some preparation is preferred and, for me, required. I come up with my best insights and ideas after a period of incubation, as most of us do. Indeed, immediate responses can also bring bias, pre-existing ideas and pet projects to the table, whether or not appropriate. How often, though, are you minded a meeting request with no indication of why you are invited and what is asked of you. This is unforgivable. If someone is making an ask of your most precious resource, time, or otherwise trying to colonise your schedule, it’s the least you can expect of them.   

Then there are the Meetings for Harvesting Ideas (MFHI), often paternalistic set-pieces in which attendees are invited to the Chairman’s table to listen to their pronouncements and offer up morsels of insight in return, to be harvested where appropriate. These are a double-edged sword, as not only is the intention already determined, with the meeting simply to enrich the mechanism through which the aim can be achieved, but these can also descend into male-dominated ‘who gan make the best quip, spot the flaw in someone else’s argument, or have the best idea’ competitions, at which participants are left playing a game of who can get in first and make the savviest comment. 

Such meetings are opportunities for those that thrive under such circumstances; the quick-witted or the extrovert. For the deeper thinker or the reflective introvert they can be soul destroying experiences in which the deepest fear is to be pigeon-holed as someone who doesn’t engage or have anything useful to contribute. And all can be sidelined if you don’t buy in to the basic premise of the meeting. 

There are two further mechanisms at play: do you use the time to do individual work or to collaborate? This may not seem immediately obvious, as surely the point of a meeting is that information needs to be shared or collectively worked upon?

In too many meetings I see people hijack the other attendees while they are doing work that they should be doing on their own. This hijacking is unfair and a massive waste of time. For clarity, think about a time you were in a meeting when one person was trying to finalise a particular document, deck or session plan. Everyone else is watching on, powerless. Or doing their own work, quietly. That’s a time hijacker. They are doing solo work in a collaborative environment, ostensibly requiring an audience. 

The opposite can also be true – actively collaborating on work that is actually better done by one person quietly on their own. Sometimes it’s best to let a team member draft or prepare something that can then be worked on collaboratively. Not all of us think collaboratively, and like the opportunity to think quietly on our own, to get our thoughts and ideas together first. Then we can contribute. Here can be a clash too between the ‘collaboration as default’ mindset I see in designers where everything is open and engaging and post-its. Clearly, there is a time and a place for that. But if every meeting is a combination of post-its and task lists then the tools are dictating how we will work. It’s the classic case of to a hammer every problem looks like a nail. We need nuance and a flexible set of approaches.   

Let’s also note here that in many cases a simple one-to-one or phone call will do. Outlook defaults to a 60m meeting. There’s only room for eight of those in a day, and if you have that many you’ve no deep work or admin. Remember calls?

It is necessary, therefore, to understand the purpose of the meeting as well as the mechanisms through which the meeting participants will work to achieve that purpose. Let’s not default to the assumption that everyone wants to use the time the same way towards the same aim by working in the same way.

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