Let’s get philosophical for one second.
You know the whole idea of a tree falling in the forest and no one is around, right? So does or does it not make a sound in that case?
I feel like the same thing happens every minute in offices all over the world. If you have a meeting and the action items at the end are unclear — or not given out at all, aside from “We’ll have another meeting about that!” — did the meeting really happen at all? (Phrased another way: did it need to happen?)
Meetings are pretty much the scourge of the modern work world, best I can infer. Here’s just a few reasons why:
- Most of the time, people are coming to them from/at wildly different points in their days
- A lot of times, people and roles are not clearly defined
- We kind of just keep calling them and running them the same, rather than thinking about how the approach could change
- LET’S JUST OPEN THEM WITH A THOUGHTFUL QUESTION AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, EH?
OK, back to the main argument here.
So you have this meeting, right? And these things had to happen for the meeting to even take place:
- People had to give up time on other things/projects/deliverables
- Someone had to (hopefully) determine this was worthy of people giving up their time
- Someone had to create an agenda
- A bunch of people had to talk (probably in circles) about something that needs to be done
- Key point here: meetings aren’t work; it’s just a collection of disparate people talking about work. The work actually needs to be done.
So now you’re done (whew!) and you’ve reached maybe some form of consensus or the idea that some semi-specific thing needs to happen next. (Sadly, as I said above, in most meetings the “thing that needs to happen next” is “call another meeting.”)
So then what do you do next?
Without legitimate action items, the meeting was a total farce. It was an exercise in talking.
I’ve heard this idea around “Meetings of Urgency,” which means you should only be meeting about issues that urgently, passionately need to be solved for your business. It’s discussed a little bit here:
Workers will go to great length to avoid meetings, and to convince their bosses that they are a waste of time and money. Apps such as Meeting Calc allow users to enter the hourly rates of attendees to come up with a grand total for how much meetings are costing. “It takes a really good meeting to be better than no meeting at all. And this app makes it clear how costly meetings can be,” says the sales blurb. But rather than striving for fewer meetings, workers and managers should focus on being smarter about when meetings are really needed, and on how to conduct the much needed managed interdependence they offer in a more concise, organized manner. “Meetings are the linchpin of everything,” says Lencioni. “If someone says you have an hour to investigate a company, I wouldn’t look at the balance sheet. I’d watch their executive team in a meeting for an hour. If they are clear and focused and have the board on the edge of their seats, I’d say this is a good company worth investing in.”
That last point is a good one. A healthy balance sheet = can be an accident. An executive team that has no idea how to streamline a meeting, give it any purpose, or attach any follow-through to it = a train wreck.
From 12–13 years of experience in different companies and in a bunch of train wreck/tangent-fueled meetings, I’d say these two things are most important:
- Invite list/Roles
- Action items at the end
Everything in the middle — “I gotta prepare my slides!” — is almost pointless without those things.
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.