Never Attend Another Useless Meeting
Jan 24, 2019
Al Pittampalli calls himself a “meeting culture warrior” on a mission to change the way organizations hold meetings and make decisions. He is the founder of Modern Meeting Company and is the author of a new book, Read this Before Our Next Meeting, a selection in Seth Godin’s Domino Project series on Amazon.com.
AMA spoke to Al Pittampalli recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following is an edited version of that interview.
AMA: Why are we, as a corporate culture, addicted to bad meetings?
Al Pittampalli: I think we’re addicted for one reason: meetings have become the default stalling tactic for important decisions. So although it looks like we have a meeting problem, if you look one level below, we actually have a decision problem. When an important decision comes up inside of an organization, we call a meeting, because although we don't like to admit it, we all get afraid when making an important decision. So that becomes our crutch.
The bias in this type of system is for the decision to never get made or to get delayed endlessly. So if we can change the structure of the meeting system in a way where the bias is towards action, that actually encourages people to make decisions quicker. It creates a meeting system that actually works.
AMA: In the book you make a strong argument for meetings that are built for speed. You write, “Meetings need to be less like the endless commercial breaks during a football game and more like pit stops at the Daytona 500.” Is there a place for extended face-to-face discussion in meetings, or should all of that dialogue happen outside of the meeting room?
AP: The meeting is a really powerful tool, but it’s an expensive one. So we’ve got to start to think about a meeting in terms of the cost that’s associated with it. I say, make it as short as possible. Sometimes a 30-minute meeting isn’t possible, but let’s approach it like a pay-for-view prize fight. You know, if you tune in to HBO when they have an amazing fight coming up, the first six hours is the lead up to the fight: all the preparation, all the hype, all the promotion, a look at the fighters’ back stories. Then, once they actually get into the ring, they duke it out for 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s over. So whatever you can do before the meeting starts, do it, and leave the meeting for the heart of the matter, whatever is at stake that will get people engaged.
AMA: How is a brainstorming session different from other types of meetings?
AP: Well, I’d say that a brainstorming session is not a meeting. In fact, it’s the antimeeting, the exact opposite of what a meeting should be. I define a meeting as something that exists solely to support decisions. It is a place to kill off other options. So when we walk into a meeting, we’re trying to decide. We’re trying to narrow options.
The purpose of a brainstorming session is to widen options, to generate possibilities. If we approach it the way we approach a meeting, we’re going to get the exact opposite result, because when you walk into a meeting room, it can be intimidating. Your boss is probably there. Your colleagues are probably there. So it actually constricts your creativity instead of the opposite, which is letting it flow.
AMA: Are you saying that decisions never actually happen in a meeting?
AP: I call meetings a “weapon of mass interruption,” because one person, with just a click of his Outlook button, can interrupt 10 people’s schedules for an hour. And that’s a very expensive thing, as it creates an environment of interruption.
I know when you have to make a decision, you may need input and feedback from other people. That’s part of intelligent decision making. But where did we create this idea that you have to call a meeting? Why not just reach out to those people individually, in one-on-one interactions to get the feedback you need, and then make a decision? Because if you do it that way, you’re not interrupting people, and it turns out conversations are much better for getting valuable feedback. Once you’ve made the decision (it doesn’t have to be the decision but it has to be a decision) a meeting can serve as a forum to debate that decision. Because groups are great at disagreeing, but they’re horrible at agreeing.
AMA: What’s the most important thing a successful meeting leader needs to do?
AP: Well, it sounds simple, but it’s knowing when to call a meeting and when not to. One of the most common structures I see is a daily or weekly status meeting. To this day I still don't get it. The presumption when we have a weekly status meeting is that there’s something that we need to talk about every single week. It also sends a signal that either maybe we don't trust our people as much as we want to or we’re trying to engineer some type of control system where we have to know what people are doing. But the reality is, it’s more like Parkinson’s Law, where work expands to fill up the amount of time available for its completion.
So you have a daily status meeting. Even if there are no issues to resolve, you talk about issues. You create issues, because that’s the nature of how meetings operate. No matter how long they are or how many meetings we have, we’re going to fill that vacuum. So deciding whether or not to have a meeting to begin with is by far the most important decision that a manager has to make with regards to meetings.
AMA: Another important part of your approach is preparation, not only on the part of the meeting maker, but also on the part of the participants. Memos, white papers, slides, and so forth, are assigned to invitees for review and analysis. In the modern meeting, what happens to those invitees who have not completed this pre meeting work?
AP: We, say reject the unprepared; unapologetically reject them! Seriously, the reality is we can’t necessarily fire the person who doesn’t come unprepared, nor is that appropriate action. But let’s first of all acknowledge it, because so often people who come in unprepared are treated with kid gloves. We don't even acknowledge the fact that they’re unprepared. But the reality is, the only way this behavior is going to change is if we acknowledge the fact that people are unprepared, and then at least try to get them to prepare. If you try and fail, try something else. I mean, that’s what management is, right? It’s trying to get through to somebody and being flexible enough with your approach that you do it in a way that actually motivates them in the end.
AMA: What should be the end result of a properly executed modern meeting?
AP: The end result should be a fully committed action plan where people know exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it by. This is very different from the way traditional meetings operate. If it’s an hour-long meeting, we spend 57 minutes on the meeting, and then during the last three minutes we start talking about the action items, almost as a formality.
What I’m saying is, before the meeting begins, we need to predict the action items in advance on the agenda, because we usually know what they’re going to be. If we have a decision that’s being debated, we can presume that, okay, if this decision moves forward, we’re going to need to figure out this, this, and this. Then we can spend the last third of the meeting coordinating the action that needs to happen and documenting it so there’s a really precise plan in place when people leave, so people don't feel like their time has been wasted.
When somebody attends a modern meeting, they receive a documented action plan and updates on when those actions are completed. So instead of feeling like their time was wasted, they feel like, “Okay, that time was well worth it because things actually happened.”
For more information about Read This Before Our Next Meeting, visit: http://modernmeetingstandard.com/the-book/