"Meetings," the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once opined, "are indispensable when you don't want to do anything." He got that right. No wonder we hastily schedule conflicts when faced with a staff confab: Most meetings are a waste of time, or worse.
Patrick Lencioni says it need not be so. "I never accepted the premise that meetings themselves were bad," he says—just that most meetings are done badly. Lencioni, president of the Table Group, approaches meetings with the daring presumption that they can be productive, even exciting.
His new book, Death by Meeting (Jossey-Bass, 2004), is a journey into meeting hell. While the narrative of this business fable is simplistic—a young college grad helps turn around a struggling company's meetings, and so its fortunes—it's also a quick and entertaining read, with some counterintuitive but commonsense lessons.
Lesson number one: Match the right meeting to the right problem. Mixing a discussion of marketing strategies with a review of job candidates is just begging for chaos. Lencioni suggests that teams schedule rapid-fire, five-minute updates every day, then weekly tactical reviews, monthly strategy sessions, and quarterly off-sites for big-idea fests. But that's just the start. Here's more from Lencioni and his clients.
- Start on time
When meetings start late, you've already lost people's attention. So put the most urgent items first on the agenda, says Jean Kovacs, CEO of Comergent Technologies. That will get everyone to their seats on time.
- Encourage conflict
Great meetings start with an issue worth getting stirred up about. "It's important that people speak their minds," says Ken Wilcox, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank. While consensus is rare, more participation yields informed decisions.
- Involve the wallflowers
"Our biggest problem was that we rarely had meaty discussions," says Noel Williams, chief information officer of HCA Healthcare. By soliciting opinions from the more reticent folks, "I'm trying to surface more thoughts."
- Don't overdo it
It's impossible to see the forest and the trees at once, says Curt Nonomaque, CEO of health-care company VHA Inc. By focusing on one set of issues at a time, his team deals better with both day-to-day issues and future strategy.
- Stick to it
"Daily meetings took a while to adjust to," says Dan Eckert, president of Neoforma Inc. Most groups try to shake off the discipline of a regular meeting. But after nine months, Eckert says, "we're seeing effective communication."
Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:
How are meetings viewed in your office, both departmental and company-wide, and what contributes to these attitudes? How could the regular meetings develop a clearer focus, and consequentially be shorter? That said, does shorter always mean better? Talk with other coworkers about how you can make meeting time more efficient. In regards to conflict, how do you keep it civil, and make sure all opinions are included? Are daily meetings, like the ones at Neoforma, really feasible for your department? Focusing on design, combine this article with Now Here's a Mobile Phone. How could your meeting rooms be altered to increase meeting morale?
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.