If you’re not gathering for one of these purposes, you’re wasting valuable time.
How many thousands—or millions—of dollars does your company pour into useless meetings every year? Probably far more than you think. Reducing this figure can do wonders for corporate competitiveness. Less indeed can be more, to paraphrase minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Popular management literature is awash with meeting fixes, but most of this advice is procedural: publish an agenda, use a facilitator, stick to a schedule, check on progress, specify next steps. All of this is fine, but the major savings lie elsewhere. For the real payoff, look into the purposes your meetings serve—why your people meet, and why they should or shouldn’t meet.
Apart from learning/education, there are only three good reasons for a group of people to meet at work, whether face-to-face or online. The first reason is to create a forum—an opportunity for individuals with different values, ideas and experiences to share their perspectives. A forum may range from a loosely assembled “town meeting” to a tightly structured colloquium.
The second reason to meet is to make decisions. A decision-making meeting produces direction for the organization or unit. The subject of such a meeting may range from strategy formulation to tactical problem-solving.
The third reason to meet is to build/strengthen a team. A team-building meeting has to do with developing collective capabilities, especially interpersonal and organizational skills. Such a meeting may also help instill a sense of togetherness and a commitment to collective performance.
These three types of meetings form a kind of food chain: a forum identifies issues and options that provide the grist for a decision-making meeting, at which the group selects a course of action from among the possibilities. Aided by team building, the group then implements the chosen path.
Unfortunately, too many corporate meetings address none of these concerns. Instead, they may be convened for the sake of information exchange, which is more efficiently handled without interpersonal interaction. At one retail company, for example, sector managers routinely assembled their direct reports and then proceeded to read memos aloud. In another firm, a similar practice resulted in a new middle-management metaphor: “the human bulletin board.”
Some meetings serve as only a soapbox—an opportunity for a blowhard to sound off. Still other times, the meeting becomes a roll call where attendance and obedience are the name of the game. As one frustrated manager explained in reference to his former boss: “Our meetings were held not to figure out what to do, but to tell you what to do.”
Managers should ask themselves which of the three legitimate meeting designs—forum, decision making, or team building—they have in mind before bringing employees together. They also might ask, at the close of a meeting, which of these purposes was served. If the answer is “none of the above,” then they missed a valuable opportunity to save their company money—and save themselves and others time and energy.