If you call to a meeting because you need a decision, make sure a solution is agreed upon in advance. In that way you reduce the general level of frustration and strengthens the meeting morale because attendants feel more involved and feel that they too own the solution.
Meetings are a wonderful substitute for work or responsibility.
I find the above quote from the book How to Lead by Jo Owen (2005) to be both humorous and striking. Many times I’ve been involved in discussions about the frustrating ineffectiveness of meetings. Currently, I work as a university lecturer in an environment where decision is often thought of as a collective process. Meetings are often called with the mixed intent of finding and agreeing upon a solution. This provides the perfect turf for frustration to grow.
Meetings were very different in my previous life as consultant at ÅF, a major Swedish engineering consultancy firm. Over time I’ve collected a good share of practical experience on meetings, as well as good advice from friends, colleagues and various management books. A few days ago I also happened to come across a couple of blog posts on the same topic: “Don’t Use Meetings to Make Decisions” by Sean Silverthorne, and “Preparing for Decision-Making Meetings” by Stever Robbins.
Why is it that meetings so often are a source of frustration?
I think that the frustration is often due to a negative feedback loop. The causal loop diagram below shows the mechanisms.
The process of decline goes something like this:
- Someone calls a meeting because a decision is needed.
- People show little interest and arrive unprepared at the meeting.
- The decision is not sufficiently anchored in advance.
- Lengthy and unproductive discussions follow during the meeting.
- The person that needs the decision gets frustrated because nothing gets decided.
- The other attendants get frustrated because they feel that their time is wasted.
- The general agreement is that somebody needs to do something about the problem.
- People become weary of attending meetings.
As the loop is closed, people grow more frustrated and show less interest, and they attend the meeting poorly prepared. Also the caller gets demoralized and less motivated to spend the time needed to anchor the decision next time. As a consequence, the quality of decision making goes down and the level of frustration goes up.
Meetings are not the place for decision making. Or more precisely, meetings are not the place for deciding what to decide. In general, a much better process is to anchor the decision with each attendant in advance. In that way, misunderstandings and objections can be dealt with in advance and not during the meeting.
When you anchor your decisions in advance, you reduce the risk of failure. If you manage to sell an idea in advance, people will be on your side during the meeting. If you can’t sell the idea, then the meeting would be a waste of time anyway. And although having your idea turned down can be frustrating, being turned down in public at the meeting is much more frustrating and demoralising.
Many think that they don’t have the time to anchor decisions in advance. That is a big mistake. Always anchor your important ideas in advance. In that way you can make quality decisions at meetings and at the same time raise the level of work satisfaction both for you and for everyone else involved.