Not Another Meeting! The Pavlovian Response to Addressing Business Problems

Over the last twenty years, the perceived value of the staff meeting has significantly diminished. Before email, before networks and the Internet, your weekly meeting was the single most effective way for management to communicate with its staff. Today, "let's have a meeting" is right up there with "let's do lunch". When was the last time you walked out of a meeting with a feeling of true accomplishment, satisfaction or renewed sense of direction?

Like family traditions that die hard, the regular weekly meeting has outlived its useful life. Although we're comforted by the familiarity of our Monday morning gathering, the light banter that begins our discussion, followed by getting down to business, the costs have come to exceed the benefits. We're distracted by pressing deadlines and want better ways to solve problems besides sitting around a conference table.

I can hear cries of objection from those who integrate creative techniques to enliven the meeting experience; rotating meeting facilitators, breaking into mini- groups or laser focusing on action items. These methods are effective but they avoid the bigger question. What drives us to have a meeting every time there's a perceived need to share information among our staff? Like Pavlov's dogs, I believe we operate out of a conditioned response to call meetings, rooted in our desire for familiarity and comfort. We rarely ask "Is this the best forum for this particular business problem?" Instead, we unconsciously gather our yellow notepads, waltz into the conference room, and hope for the best.

Bringing a defined group together can be effective when you know what you're looking for and from whom. It's when "you don't know what you don't know" that makes meetings an unproductive use of people's time. Take for example the experience I had in an office kitchen. While conversing about my role on a project with another project member, I discovered they had a report that was critical to my work. Had I waited just a few more minutes to get a cup of water, I may have never stumbled upon this data. The first time this happened, I was thrilled to have so casually come upon this information and dismissed it as coincidence and luck.

After a similar experience with another person, I wondered: "Shouldn't I have known before this conversation by the water cooler how this person could help me?" It was only after a third time did I consider how many missed opportunities must be happening like this and how the artificial boundaries of our teams and departments can be both useful but limiting.

What if that person two offices over from you has information that will save you hours of work? She would gladly share it, but you're not part of her group. Would you discover this information in one of your scheduled meetings? Probably not. If we conclude that ninety percent of our general information needs can be found in organized meetings, it's that other ten percent that we need to focus on. It's the difficult to find information that is the difference between good and great work.

The question is: "How do we get more easily at this hidden ten percent?"

Like my kitchen experience, you can start by formalizing a period each week where individuals meet in cubicles, kitchens or halls, looking intentionally for these hidden nuggets of information. Encourage individuals to work across the boundaries of existing teams and departments. You may already be applying this strategy on your own, but there are many others who are either waiting for direction from management about their missing ten percent, or are just satisfied with ninety percent of the job complete.

Either way, it's time to get out of our chairs and seek out the information we need, not wait for a meeting in hopes that all our productivity issues can be solved. At best, our teams will find creative ways to make the meeting experience more palatable, but will rarely be a good forum to uncover the missing ten percent that makes the biggest impact.

I concede one meeting ritual that consistently produces exceptional results for ninety-nine percent of staff members. It encourages teamwork, sharing of ideas, creates satisfaction and builds camaraderie. We're talkin’ Chinese food!

Now get out of your chair, go into the kitchen and start a conversation!