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The Meeting

In „Mittelmaß und Wahnsinn” I write that one of the properties of the matrix organization is that it keeps you busy; preferably by way of meetings. Again, this is not a new fact and thus it is also not surprising that there is hardly anything everyone complains about as much as the ineffectiveness and the inefficiency of meetings.

“A total waste of time”, that’s the verdict about a huge number of these meetings. No wonder then, too, that there is a whole stack of literature and books about how to get rid of or at least make meetings more efficient.

What you actually might wonder about is why hardly anything in that regard appears to have changed to the better over the past decades. My reasoning is that it’s human nature again that is responsible for that seeming paradox, that there are deeply engrained patterns of behavior success that – despite all the complaints – actually make us comfortable with the ways these meetings run.

In the room

But before we get back to that line of thought, let’s have a look at one of these meetings. Despite the fact that the specificities hardly matter, a bit of background first. We observe a meeting of the Board of Management of a company that is a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. This subsidiary is under quite some pressure. Results do not meet the parent company’s expectation and in three weeks’ time, they are supposed to present a strategy that gives confidence in significant improvements. A working group has been trying to devise such a strategy and has already presented in the previous three BoM meetings that take place on a bi-weekly basis. Progress has been – well – slow, especially as every of these previous meetings has left the working group with a multitude of new avenues and inquiries to being pursued. Now, time is getting tight and this meeting’s slot is set to come up with final decisions and a solid storyline for the strategy presentation. The topic is the last one on the agenda and scheduled for 45 minutes before lunch.

The major protagonists are Joseph, the subsidiary’s CEO, three years in that role, with a long history in the overarching corporation. Rosemary, department head in Operations and leader of that working group, unanimously regarded as a high potential. She has been given that task as part of her development plan to expand her strategic view and exposure to senior management. Joe, the subsidiary’s CFO, a veteran of 10 years in that role. And finally: Jack, the Chief Sales Officer, having been hired about a year ago from a competitor.

Besides these, regular participants to that meeting are the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Digitization Officer, the Chief Legal Counsel, the HR Director and Lilly, the Director of Communications. A few regional Directors join via conference call. Ah, and of course there is Lawrence from StratCon, the company’s favourite consultancy.

We set foot in the scene when Joseph begins apologizing …

Joseph: Rosemary please apologize! We are 15 minutes behind schedule. We got somehow stuck in the discussion about our lack of understanding for the lack of entrepreneurial mindset in our company; especially amongst our middle management. But maybe that’s a good starting point anyway for the topic you’re going to present now, our new strategic setup and the concrete measures we are going to take. Yet, before I hand over to you, I have to announce that I have a hard stop at 12 because of another meeting I have to attend.

Joe (raising his hand): Well, I have to run at 12, too, but before you start, I want to point out that I don’t like the habit of sending the document just two days before the meeting. Our policy is five working days and I need this time to prepare and double check with my team.

Jack: Absolutely agree … and by the way: 30 pages plus appendix? That appears a bit too much to me. At the minimum we need a proper management summary.

Rosemary (getting up, smiling winningly): All points taken but please bear in mind that we have had only two weeks between meetings and that we already strived to compress the strategy and measures onto 30 pages.

Joe and Jack (raising their eyebrows, mumbling): Nevertheless.

Rosemary (energetic): Well, lets get started. (brings up the first slide of her presentation)

Joseph: But we must not phrase it like this!

Rosemary: What do you mean?

Joseph: Your intro slide says: “Turning the ship around”. – That’s way too negative. It sounds like we have been on the wrong course for years and would have to take radical measures now. That’s not my perception at all.

Rosemary: “Correcting our course”, then?

Joe: I still don’t like it. Still too negative. What we’re doing is to adapt to a changing environment.

Jack: … based on a strong and proud past …

The discussion drags on for about fifteen minutes until Lilly, the Comms Director steps in.

Lilly: So, why don’t we phrase it like this: “Adapting to a changing environment whilst building on an outstandingly strong past”?

Joseph: That’s it. Great. Thank you, Lilly! Rosemary, would you please make the changes.

Rosemary: But doesn’t that sound a bit too … how should I say … too soft? They expect decisive changes and measures from us, don’t they? And we need such measures, don’t we?

Joseph: Rosemary, let me tell you something. It’s always about the story we tell. Always. Sure, we face some challenges. And sure, facts matter. But it’s stories that stick. And beginning our story like “Turning around the ship” would disparage all the hard work and the passion so many people put into this company over so many years, wouldn’t it? No, it’s always better to start positive and build your narrative on that proud and positive past.

Jack: I couldn’t agree more, Joseph! Rosemary, that’s a lesson for life.

Rosemary: Well then, “Adapting to a changing environment whilst building on an outstandingly strong past” it is. With respect to the time, I move on to the second slide, showing the most recent figures we have …

Joseph (interrupts): Ah, Rosemary, here we have another problem.

Rosemary: What’s wrong?

Joseph: The figures don’t add up. In my calculation 36% plus 44% plus 21% yields 101%. We surely cannot create one additional percentage point out of nothing.

Rosemary: That’s certainly only a rounding issue. Let me elaborate on the figures …

Joseph: Well, Rosemary, probably it is but a rounding error but here’s another lesson for life here: If the figures don’t add up properly on your slide, your audience will lose trust in what you present. Thus, please make sure, they add up.

Rosemary: Point taken. But have a look at the figures. We fell further behind plans again. Sales numbers didn’t meet forecasts again and costs do not show any sign of improvement.

Joseph looks at Jack, the Chief sales Officer.

Jack: I am totally surprised. I do not recognize these figures at all. Where do they come from?

Joseph: Neither do I. I have a different picture in mind.

Rosemary (looking at Joe for help): They come straight from accounting. End of quarter results fresh from the press and they point towards our biggest issues …

Joe: Well, that’s why I emphasized the need to distribute these slides early enough so everyone can reconcile with his team.

Jack: Exactly, Joe.

Joseph: Yes, but tell me, Jack, do we have an issue there?

Jack: Yes and no. Sales as such are going according to plan. Actually, we have a very strong pipeline now and I expect a significant uptick down the line. Where we have issues is closing the contracts and getting the figures into the system because of some technical problems we seem to have. Operations and Finance are in the process of analyzing the issues my people raised. I don’t trust that these figures reflect reality preoperly. About the cost figures I can’t say too much. These are more in Rosemary’s immediate realm.

Again, the discussion goes a bit back and forth with people throwing in ideas why reality might differ from the figures reported. Finally, Joseph cuts the conversation short.

Joseph (looking first at his watch and then at Rosemary): Rosemary, now we have a couple of problems. First, we spent so much time working on your first two slides that we have less than five minutes left for the remainder of your presentation. And second, your numbers appear to be a bit – how should I say – “wobbly”. How would you suggest, we proceed from here?

Rosemary (slightly puzzled): Eh. Yes. Well. I don’t know. We have to forward the presentation in two weeks and I need your guidance on the whole storyline, the slides we want to present and of course the measures.

Joseph: I have to run in fourminutes.

Rosemary (bringing up a slide): Eh. Can we at least agree on the key message that reads: “We have serious sales and cost issues that we have to fix. In order to do so, we suggest a major restructuring of the sales department and a significant number of layoffs across the whole board”.

Joseph: Rosemary. That is a bit premature, isn’t it? Not to mention the negative undertone again. I suggest we try finding another slot to discuss this in more detail. My calendar is rather busy but I’m sure, my assistant will find something. In the meantime, I’d like you to work on an improved storyline and getting your figures straight and vetted.

Rosemary (devastated): But …

Joseph: Lawrence, would you mind accompanying me on my way to my lunch meeting?

Lawrencethe consultant: I’m glad to …

Well, in the process of writing this, my imagination might have run a bit wild. I admit: not too many meetings have such a strategic quality and if so, some of them might be prepared and run better. On the other hand, meetings like this aren’t completely unheard of and the underlying patterns are more than widely spread regardless.

The 10 sins that make modern meetings

  1. Preferring to spend time on the more generic and commonly understandable issues than on the complex and controversial ones.
  2. Having way too many participants.
  3. Coming only shallowly prepared to the meeting but either trying to hide that fact or putting the blame on the late submission of documents (or something else).
  4. The alpha-person (-male) establishing and exerting control from the beginning. Others also staking out their territory before the show begins.
  5. Getting bogged down on the first slides instead of managing to understand the full picture first.
  6. Getting bogged down on almost irrelevant things like semantics or rounding issues. Or colours or font sizes or compliance with the latest version of the company style guise.
  7. Questioning the validity of facts instead of just accepting them.
  8. Patronizing the more junior participants. If not humiliating them.
  9. Playing the ball into the high grass if some unfavourable topics arise. And sometimes building surprise coalitions to do so.
  10. Adjourning.

And finally: the real decisions are prepared and negotiated outside these meetings anyway. Behind the scenes.

No reason to feign annoyance

No wonder then that we are so annoyed by these meetings. And changing it would be that simple. Just do it differently: invite less people, come prepared or use time at the beginning to let people get prepared, focus on what really matters, listen, use the time for valuable conversation, strive for commitment, let the experts flesh out details outside the meeting … . Actually it’s more than simple. Common sense. But if you want, you can find all sorts of research and frameworks and recommendations.

The annoyance is here for decades. So are the proposals for improving the situation. Yet there is hardly any change. Thus, the bigger question might not be “how?” but “why?”.

I surmise that despite all the sported annoyance some of us actually like the way these meetings go. If you do not have to create something tangible – like a P&L or a piece of code – meetings aren’t a bad way to spend time.

First, the schedule as such gives you a purpose. When asked in the evening about what you have done, you can state that you have been in meetings all day long and everybody – your spouses included – will nod and smile compassionately … but at least understandingly.

Second, being invited to the “right” meetings symbolizes your status and achievements. In a nutshell: the more senior the people are in the meetings you attend, the higher your level of importance is perceived. It’s always good if you can drop the comment “I’ve been on a meeting with the CEO for half the day …”. Anywhere.

Third, we simply act out our natural behaviours as primates. All that things about alpha-animals, pecking orders, social rise and fall, acknowledgement and humiliation … .

Fourth, these meetings are quite entertaining in a way. Smart people have put a lot of time, effort and creativity in putting together content and presentations. And smart people are sitting around that conference table to discuss these topics. No wonder, there is this temptation to get bogged down on the first piece that appears to be sufficiently interesting but common enough so that everybody feels comfortable contributing.

And fifth, the downside risk is manageable. There are proven techniques to raise doubts, to obfuscate, to defer if the spotlight gets too close.

And finally: the real decisions are prepared and negotiated outside these meetings anyway. Behind the scenes.

Thus, maybe let’s stop feigning annoyance with these meetings, let’s stop pretending to look for better ways, let’s embrace them for what they can be: a great way to spend time at the office! We have to be there anyway to prove our passion, attitude and importance.


Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

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