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Taming the Meeting Beast

December 13, 2010
by Pete Rivera
| Reprints
When meetings get in the way of work, it's time to set the agenda

During a presentation last week someone told me that they had a big backlog of work, but they could not get it done because of all their meetings.

I don't know when meetings became barriers to getting things done. I remember when it was a way to get things done. Normally you would have a problem that required a smart team to solve, so you would get a team together.

Now whenever some issue is raised, you need to meet to discuss it. So here are a few rules to follow in order to tame the meeting beast:

1) If a meeting is scheduled and the meeting organizer did not supply an agenda (With scope, discussion items, responsible parties and time allocated), then it's just a social event. Think of it at as an opportunity to get caught up with your co-worker's vacation plans and family life. Joy!

2) If your in a meeting and nobody is assigned to take minutes and distribute to attendees afterwards; then the meeting never happened. No really, what meeting? I don't know what your talking about, I think I was in a room with some finance folks, but I had to leave early to...go to another meeting.

3) If you had an agenda, and there are minutes being taken, but at the end if the meeting there are no follow up items, tasks with assignments and time frames: It was a one time event. Maybe the follow-up or task was real work to be done and the completion task included an email report. Great!

The most evil function in Outlook is the ability to schedule "recurring times" for meetings. It's just too easy to tie up all of your senior leadership with standing meetings. My favorite pastime during meaningless meetings is to count the attendees, take a SWAG of each of their salaries, then divide it by the hour. You just figured out your direct cost of the meeting. Then you can really get creative and figure opportunity costs of each attendee doing what their regular job requires.

So here is your take away:

1) No agenda=Social Event.

2) No minutes: It never happened.

3) No follow up: It was a one time event.

Can you think of additional rules that you use to tame the meeting beast?



Great post on an extremely important topic and common source of waste and dissatisfaction. My boss, earlier this year, prescribed that the thirty people reporting to him read Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencioni.

I highly recommend the book. I also encourage all non-physician executives perform the same or similar ePrescribing (when recommended by eMail that your subs buy the paper, kindle or audio version). You are an eligible provider (EP) for this kind of ePrescribing although the incentive dollars come back on a different schedule and the payout can be recurring.

Despite the title (and they do prescribe better meeting hygiene), they make the point that the relationship between the senior executives and their impact on all subordinates follows from meeting behavior.  Exactly the behaviors Pete elaborates. Poor meeting hygiene, although important, is only a symptom of a sick culture. Part of the treatment (and a required part, of course) is better meetings following GTD (defined here) and PMP disciplines (PMP as referenced by Gwen Darling, here) that we've both written about before in these blogs.  Clarity on agenda and scribe at the beginning, adult focusing throughout, and closure with accountability (who is committed to do what by when, including the communication plan for disseminating decisions made at the meeting.)

Lencioni, I believe in the beginning of another book, makes a related point. All organizations are made up of two things, people and culture (practices). Ideally, you want smart people and healthy culture. If you have to choose between having one or the other, you'll be much more productive and effective with a healthier culture than smarter people.

Joe Bormel, M.D., MPH
CMO & VP, QuadraMed

Pete: Love it! That is the right angle to deal with meetings without an agenda. A few years ago I was doing research on a large HCIT company. There was actually a person on the org chart and their title was VICE PRESIDENT OF MEETINGS. I could not stop laughing. Great post Pete!

Tim, how do I apply for that job? Maybe even a CEO of Meetings and Agendas!