When asked about meetings they attend, people often roll their eyes or sigh heavily and say, “Don’t ask!” Clearly, something’s wrong. While “ineptly-conducted” is one of the usual suspects and an obvious contributor to the problem, something deeper and frequently overlooked lies at its heart. It’s a major flaw which seriously reinforces the tendency of meetings to waste time, squander potential and irritate the participants. One researcher points bluntly to it when he describes why so many meetings are doomed to failure:
90% of most executives’ working days are occupied by meetings with at least one other person. Most other managers spend between 35% and 70% of their time at meetings. . . . [Most] are doomed to failure because their purpose has not been accurately identified, the participants aren’t sure where they’re heading, they are not conducted properly, and their results aren’t measured. [Terry Robins-Jones, University of South Australia]
“Not conducted properly” will be addressed by forthcoming discussions in my Subscriber Library. This article focuses on clarity of purpose.
Agenda is not purpose
A meeting’s agenda comprises the various matters of content which must be addressed in order to achieve its purpose. If people believe or behave as though the purpose is to address agenda, as is very frequently the case, they’ve mistaken one thing for another and it’s all downhill from there.
Without a clear and common understanding of purpose or with one capable of differing interpretations, every decision about agenda is flawed in the eyes of those for whom it represents a misconception of purpose. Whether or not what is addressed is relevant, important or prioritised correctly, and whether how it is approached and for how long is appropriate, are matters always open to irresolvable argument.
With the fundamental question – Why? – unanswered, assumed or unclear, the success of meetings is usually judged by “getting through the agenda” or “having a good discussion” or “making some decisions”. But we simply cannot know if it was the right discussion conducted the right way about the right agenda items , or if the right decisions were made.
Leaving a meeting with good feelings, doesn’t tell us that we did the right things right.
When I’m asked to facilitate improvement in the effectiveness of a group’s or team’s meetings I sometimes begin by asking all individual members to write what they believe is the officially-stated or commonly-acknowledged purpose for meeting. Not once has there been unanimity in the responses. Usually, there is wide disparity in the answers or inability to offer one. In every case the leaders of those meetings have provided statements of agenda, rather than of purpose.
When I ask the meeting’s members to provide anonymous completions to this sentence about their regular meetings: “Our meetings are conducted as though their purpose were to . . . “, many significant dysfunctions and opportunities for improvement become apparent.
Check it out
Next time you’re invited to a meeting, pay attention to what is stated or described as its purpose. “To go over the budget”, “To settle the plan”, “Review progress . . . “ , “To catch up . . . “ are statements of agenda, not purpose.
When you next call a meeting, consider whether you’re stating agenda or purpose.
Improvement begins by asking Why are we meeting? What purpose do we want fulfilled by our deliberations? What are these activities for – what’s the Big Picture and the important outcomes (both “hard” and “soft”) they aim at contributing to?
Once answers to these questions are known we can then ask, What processes should we use to achieve that purpose? and What agenda do we need to address?
To say, We meet to deal with the agenda, begs the question, What is the purpose of doing so?
If you don’t know where you’re heading, any road will get you there.
Do you attend meetings whose purpose is no clearer than, “The Monday meeting”, “Team”, “Senior Management Group”, “Executive”, or “Board” meetings? Have you and other participants assumed or are unclear about those meetings’ specific, intended purpose? If people who attend your meetings may not agree on purpose, make some changes.
Start with Why.