Imagine the scene. A bemused wife turns to her husband as he works in bed:
“There isn’t any time,” he tells her. “I have to go to meetings.”
“Do you think it would make things easier if I came and slept at the office?”
“Why don’t you come and sleep at the meetings? Everyone else does.”
So begins the popular training video starring John Cleese on how to run meetings. The curious thing is, as novel and funny as the video is, the advice is woefully routine: plan meetings in advance, prepare a detailed agenda, pre-notify attendees, control the discussion, and summarize and record decisions.
Anyone unfamiliar with this advice has undoubtedly been sleeping through many a meeting, while anyone familiar with it knows the awful truth: that meetings, bloody meetings aren’t so simple a problem to solve.
Sure, planning agenda helps (in fact, a lot), as does coming prepared and summarizing decisions and next steps. But this advice cannot solve the biggest problem of all: the boorish behavior that puts your teeth on edge, like nails down a blackboard, inviting you to act equally boorishly—by coming late, or taking the bait, or checking your emails, or just checking out altogether—anything to escape that bloody meeting!
The problem—the one that isn’t so easy to solve—springs from the inescapably interdependent, time-compressed reality of today’s organizations. We just can’t manage the complexity, or the urgency, of the many issues we face today without depending on each other to see, do, know, think of, or speak to different aspects of those issues. Hence, the need for meetings.
What makes those meetings problematic is our collective tendency to shirk the special responsibilities that go with increased interdependence and decreased time—our responsibility not just to influence but to be influenced, not just to argue with but to learn from others, not just to debate but to create, not just to tolerate different views but to use them to invent solutions no one person alone could imagine.
Clarifying agendas, goals, roles, rights, responsibilities, decisions, and next steps—sure, all of it will help, but none of it will take the place of learning how to play and work well with others. For more, see Meetings—For Better or For Worse.