Death by meeting

Posted on November 9, 2010 by

A Book review

In this highly readable corporate “fable” about a company and its management challenges, the author entertainingly highlights the perils of  the weekly staff meeting. Specifically, what is the impact of having a meeting that has conflicting “purposes?” Dreading reading yet another management book for business audiences, I pleasantly tore though this one in one evening and found many insights relevant to us public sector folks.

The “story” opens with a CEO who has just sold his company and has been quickly challenged for his company by a new corporate honcho. The CEO hires a new assistant who has Tourette’s syndrome and recently went off his meds. The assistant’s symptom? — blurting out socially inappropriate remarks. The new assistant participates in the management meetings and makes some uncomfortable, though very accurate and telling, observations. The plot then focuses on how the company learns how to bring energy to its meetings and get important value from meetings to avoid the take over by the honcho from corporate.

Death by Meetings compares meetings to TV or movies, showing how different formats are targeted to different audiences and purposes. For example: watching the daily news or CNN, you might only watch for a few minutes. They compare this to a daily 5-minute check-in. The weekly sitcom/crime drama is like a weekly tactical meeting focusing on what needs to get done that week. Movies are comparable to monthly strategic meetings with only limited number of topics. Finally, the mini-series correlates to some form of quarterly review that focuses on the big picture/long view.

Beyond meeting structure, the book makes a plea for increasing the “drama” or “conflict” in your meetings. This is not conflict for conflict’s sake or encouraging employees with an attitude to act out, but placing some context for why the topic of the meeting is important and drawing out the best thinking from everyone in the group. Meetings should be used to get everyone’s opinion, have a vigorous and robust discussion about differences, and then make a decision that everyone then agrees to follow. Well, that’s the model at least!

The book recommends having four distinct, separate types of meetings. It also describes suggested topics, inevitable challenges, and ways to avoid the challenges for each type of meeting.

Meeting Type Time Required Purpose & Format Keys to Success
Daily Check-in 5 minutes Share daily schedules and activities
  1. Don’t sit down
  2. Keep it administrative
  3. Don’t cancel even when some people can’t be there
Weekly Tactical 45-90 minutes Review weekly activities and metrics, and resolve tactical obstacles and issues
  1. Don’t set agenda until after initial reporting
  2. Postpone strategic discussions
Monthly Strategic (Ad Hoc Strategic) 2-4 hours Discuss, analyze, brainstorm, and decide upon critical issues affecting long-term success
  1. Limit to one or two topics
  2. Prepare and do research
  3. Engage in good conflict
Quarterly (off-site) Review 1-2 days Review strategy, industry trends, competitive landscape, key personnel, team development
  1. Get out of the office
  2. Focus on work; limit social activities
  3. Don’t over structure or overburden the schedule

Although four types of meetings seems burdensome, when you realize how much of your time is spent in meetings, how many of them are designed to resolve multiple-types of issues, and how infrequently they work, you might think about this approach. Reflecting on my own meetings, I realize my team often doesn’t put things in the “parking lot” (or a more appropriate follow-up “ad hoc strategic” meeting) because we feel that we have to resolve complex strategic issues in the moment, which in turns takes the meeting off track and ends up frustrating everyone when we don’t get through the intended agenda.

I recommend reading the book for ideas and inspiration. Obviously, you don’t have to adopt everything proposed. For example, in my group I don’t see a need for a daily check-in, I already do a weekly tactical, I want to start doing monthly “strategics,” and I think we’ll be lucky if we get in two on-site quarterlies a year.

If you read the book, come back to this blog and let me know if these ideas worked (or didn’t) for your group.

Written by Michael Jacobson who manages the Performance Management Section in the Executive’s Office of Performance Management and Strategic Planning.

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