I don’t think that it is any sort of a big secret that I am not a great fan of meetings. I can remember way back into the dark ages when meetings were convened in order to reach a decision. Sometimes you counted the votes in an effort to achieve some sort of a democratic consensus in the hope that the combined input of all would result in the best decision and solution. Sometimes the votes were “weighed” where the boss’s vote weighed more than the sum total of everyone else’s vote combined. The point was that a decision got made.
Originally meetings were just that, a “meeting”. Webster’s Dictionary (one of my favorite books) defines the verb “meet” (as in to meet) as “to come into the presence of”. Meetings were defined as a physical presence event. They were held face to face. People came from all over to attend. Meetings were not taken lightly. You needed to be prepared. They were special times where the day to day grind was set aside, where reports were presented and decision were made. You looked people in the eye. Feedback was immediate and visible. Things got done.
This was back when everyone worked in a place called the office.
As time has passed we have virtualized our office. Technology now enables us to work in teams across time zones and around the world. This new approach has broadened our ability to work together, but it has also reduced our ability to have the physical presence that defined a meeting.
Instead we now have phone calls. When we have more than two people on a phone call it is termed a conference call. We seemed to have evolved to a place where we now consider conference calls to be “meetings”. As more time has passed it seems that these conference call – meetings have become more and more of an open discussion forum where the actual making of a decision and moving forward has taken a back seat to the ongoing discussion of the topic at hand.
I am convinced that at least part of the reason for the increasing ineffectiveness of meetings these days stems from the fact that telephone etiquette is different from meeting etiquette, and the ability and proclivity of people who are invited to the conference call – meeting to forward their invitation to the meeting to other people.
In short, technology advancements, virtual offices and the ability to invite ever increasing numbers of attendees to a meeting without the meeting initiator’s consent have conspired to cause the loss of control, purpose and value of a meeting.
In the past a meeting had a defined time. It started, had an agenda and it finished. Because of the effort involved for people to meet face to face it was a taken that there had better be progress, or resolution or a solution to the topic. The investment in time and people and travel made it imperative.
This is no longer the case with a conference call. On a conference call the only one really paying attention at any point in time is the person speaking. Because everyone else is usually busy and sitting at their desk, they are multi-tasking and doing something else while only partially attending the conference call – meeting. If nothing is accomplished at the meeting it is no great loss. It is easy to schedule another conference call and pick up where the last one left off.
The sense of purpose and requirement for conclusion is lost because it is no longer a meeting. It is a phone call.
A second contributory factor to the decline and fall of meeting effectiveness is the growing sense that it is alright for people who were invited to the meeting (now conference call) to invite other people to the conference call. What was once a manageable number of attendees, each with a specific role to play and deliverable to provide now seems to have blossomed into a search for consensus across anyone and everyone who could conceivably be associated with the meeting topic.
In the past when people actually met face to face this just didn’t happen. No one just “crashed” a meeting uninvited like some college fraternity party. In the time when you actually had to be at the meeting in order to attend it, it meant something to be there. You had to stop whatever else you were doing and go to the meeting. It was a very rare occasion where an incremental invitation was extended to someone who was not on the initial meeting invitation list.
It was even rarer when an incremental invitation was extended by anyone other than the person who called for, set up and owned the meeting.
Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case anymore.
Now I find with ever increasing numbers we have meeting attendees who are attending (actually dialing in to the conference bridge) who were not invited to the meeting. I see more and more electronic notifications that someone who was invited to the meeting has forwarded the meeting invitation to someone else.
When did it become okay to do this?
The only time that I could see this type of situation arise would be when an original meeting invitee can no longer attend and must delegate their responsibility with respect to the meeting to someone else. But here we have a one for one replacement, not an incremental attendee.
I liken the incremental invitation scenario to be similar to being invited to a friend’s house for a dinner party and arriving with several of your friends (who were not invited and the host may or may not know or have planned for) because you thought they would enjoy a dinner party and should be involved.
I have stated many times that I am probably old school in my approach to business. That does not mean that I will not embrace new technologies and business techniques. I will whole heartedly do so if I can see the value and improvement the new idea brings to the business. I understand the new virtual office and team structure. I see many of the benefits that it brings. I also see many of the detriments that it also brings.
There are many increases in productivity that can be directly traced to the new virtual structures. I think that there are also many decreases in productivity that have not been fully recognized yet in the new business processes that are resulting from these new structures. I think some of the loss of meeting productivity is one of them.
When we turn a business meeting into just one of several other telephone calls we start to devalue its purpose. We multi-task and no longer give it our full attention. When we start inviting, or allow others to invite more and more people to a meeting we are complicating the process and diffusing the focus, and again devaluing the meeting.
And all of this seems to be okay because if we don’t get anything done in this meeting, or on this call, we’ll just have another one. It is now so much easier to have a meeting, and so much easier to forward meeting invitations that allow us to bring more people than necessary together, that we no longer feel that the purpose, function and conclusion solution that were once the primary objectives of having a meeting to continue to be of primary importance.
In short, it appears that it is now so easy to attend a meeting, and we have so many people attending meetings, that we have devalued the purpose and objectives of having meetings. It seems as a result we are having more and more meetings attended by more and more people, and getting less and less done at each meeting.
What that means is the next time you get invited to a meeting, pay attention to the proceedings, insist that there be a definable outcome of the meeting, and don’t forward the invitation to anyone else for the meeting.
If we all did this we would all probably have fewer meetings to attend because we would get more done at the ones we actually went to.