Martin Murphy on Why Meetings Fail

The following is a guest post from Martin Murphy, author of No More Pointless Meetings: Breakthrough Sessions That Will Revolutionize the Way You Work about the bane of many workers and offices–meetings

Everyone, it seems, complains about how much time and talent is wasted in meetings. And for good reason; the conventional meeting, in which the most senior person in attendance runs the show, is a dysfunctional process which guarantees mediocre results.

The drill is ingrained: everyone gathers in the conference room, the boss declares the agenda, starts the meeting, orchestrates the dialogue, and simultaneously participates in content discussions. Over the past hundred years the ritual hasn’t changed much and billions of dollars are routinely squandered as a consequence of this haphazard collaboration method.

Meetings are an age old cultural fixture in organizations of all types and sizes and there’s little difference in how they’re conducted. When managers change jobs they don’t need to change the way they run meetings. The meeting process is locked-in and change resistant.

This is about to end, however, due to the growth in number and complexity of issues the typical manager has to address every day and the shrinking timeframes within which these issues need to be assessed, problems resolved, decisions made and implemented.

We live and work in a digital world that is evolving with mind-boggling speed. Triggered by technological breakthroughs, change is occurring on all fronts. There are no cultural, economic or environmental insulators that can contain exponential change; just more and more interconnectivities to be discovered.

Almost overnight, our world has become many times more complex than it has ever been. So it should come as no surprise that meetings – the collaborative mainstay of workflow management, can no longer be exempted from an innovative upgrade.

The primary reason that meetings fail is that content and process are not separated.

Content is the reason for the get-together; the core issues that require collaboration. Process is about the dynamics of the session. For example, is everyone participating? Is the energy level positive? Are all issues being addressed? Are problems getting solved? Are opportunities being identified? Are people contributing to the fullest extent of their cognitive and creative capabilities? This is the stuff of process.

When content and process are not clearly separated, meetings hemorrhage talent, opportunity, time and money. For this reason, all meetings should have a trained facilitator whose only responsibility is to ensure that content and process are given equal attention. This is a full-time job. One cannot conduct a productive meeting and participate in content discussions at the same time. This is the fundamental flaw in conventional meetings.

The ranking person in the room (let’s call that person “the boss”) should rarely run a meeting. When the boss does, a multitude of interpersonal dynamics are triggered. These include fear (hiding), political positioning (the need to impress), and every non-productive dynamic in-between. Left unmonitored, the reason for the meeting (content) will always be trumped by personal agendas (process).

But there’s an even more fundamental reason why the boss shouldn’t run meetings: Consider the experience, knowledge and wisdom brought to a meeting by that individual. Why distract his or her focus from content when the most junior person in the conference room can be taught how to facilitate a meeting in a day or two? Ideally, the task of facilitating any work session should go to the most junior person in attendance who knows how.

Another reason conventional meetings fail is because of the “one-size-fits-all” nature of the beast. Workflow management readily reframes itself into four general activity clusters that are best described within the context of needs:

  1. Issues that need to be managed.
  2. Problems that need to be solved.
  3. Innovation that needs to occur.
  4. Planning that needs to be ongoing.

Task-specific workflow management sessions (as opposed to meetings) are available that enable managers to leverage the cognitive and creative capabilities of their reports in a manner that transforms human capital utilization. When used as a collaborative tool (in place of the conventional meeting) productivity soars because early ownership of Jacket, No More Pointless Meetings by Martin Murphyissues, accountability and transparency are ensured.

The time to replace the “meeting” with a superior collaborative alternative is long overdue.

Martin Murphy is founder and president of Quantum Meetings, a meeting consultancy whose client list includes Coca-Cola, Pepsi, IBM, Pillsbury, Lever Brothers, Bristol-Myers Squibb, The City of Atlanta, and non-profits such as the National Association for Home Care in Washington, D.C.


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