Have you ever been to a boring meeting?
Have you ever been to a pointless
Have you ever been to a meeting where no
one could make a decision because they were seeing
information for the first time?
Have you ever been to a meeting when you
weren't sure why you were there?
Have you ever driven to a boring
pointless meeting where no one could make a decision
because they were seeing information for the first
time and you weren't sure why you were there?
I suspect that the answer to each of these
questions may be 'Yes'. Usually people laugh when I ask
these questions, and nod in recognition. But there's
also a kind of unspoken resignation to the
inevitable. Because meetings are a fact of life, an
immutable facet of institutional life - and there is
But actually, there is.
Challenge those meetings!
In moving to Smart Working, it is essential to
Challenge all Assumptions of Necessity. I call this
the CAN test. For every process and behaviour at
work we need to ask 4 key questions:
- Why are we doing this (at all)?
- Why are we doing this here?
- Why are we doing it in this way?
- Why are we doing this now? (rather
than at another time)
Applying these questions to the way meetings are
held is often very enlightening. It unmasks many
assumptions - and these assumptions often lock in
Typical assumptions are:
- Meetings need to be a default time -
typically rooms are booked for an hour
- Meetings need to be in a meeting room
- Meetings need to be physically face to face
- Meetings will involve the handouts or people
printing off their own agenda and information
- People attending should attend the whole
You can probably think of others. The interesting
thing, though, is that very often the way meetings
are arranged and conducted owes more to habit and
tradition than to necessity.
This is especially so now that the tools are
available for Smart Working. But tools are only part
of the story. Simply providing new tools is rarely
enough to deal with the cultural legacy of old
Practical culture change
Cultural change for Smart Working works most
effectively when behaviour and mindset change is
tied to practical issues. Taking up the challenge to
Rethink Meetings is one of the best and most
practical ways to embed habits of Smart Working.
Having deconstructed meetings with the CAN Test
and examined the unspoken assumptions, it's time to
rebuild. Now it's time to ask the Smart Working
Are there ways of doing this that are:
- More flexible?
- Lighter? (i.e. less heavy on time, energy,
- More in line with customer needs?
- More in line with employee aspirations
It's important that to establish the principles
of the change we don't start with facilities or the
technologies. We're looking to find ways of doing
what we do in meetings in improved ways, as these
Thinking through the alternatives
So we're not starting by thinking, 'How do we do
that meeting in a new way using smart tools and
spaces?'. Instead we're thinking, 'How can
we deal with the things we deal with through
meetings in better ways?'.
That may include not having a meeting at
all. It is useful to adopt the hyperbolic
maxim, 'Never have a meeting to exchange
information'. An immense amount of time is wasted
this way. Of course, there may be particular complex
or sensitive information where a meeting might be
appropriate. But generally, all information should
be exchanged beforehand using electronic processes.
That will greatly speed the real purpose of the
meeting - to make decisions.
It may include not having everyone
present for all the time. Have you ever
attended a 2 hour meeting when the part you need to
be there for lasts only 5 minutes? Or attended a
meeting in case your expertise is needed?
This is dreadfully inefficient. There are several
ways this can be dealt with. People needed for short
periods or on stand-by just in case can be consulted
by text or instant messaging. And then join
the meeting by audio, video or web conferencing
while needed. There are a range of tools
that make this easy - Citrix GoToMeeting, WebEx,
Lync or Skype, for example.
New ways of doing what we do in meetings may well
include having meetings with few people, or
no people, physically in the same place.
For the tasks in hand, it's necessary to ask how
essential it is to have all the participants
physically present. It's basically a cost/benefit
equation. What does it take away from people's other
work and their productivity to travel to this
meeting? What do the travel and non-productive time
cost? What opportunities are being missed by
insisting on rigid physical presence meeting
People do rapidly adapt to 'virtual meetings', so
long as they are not simply tryuing to replicate the
deadening format of lengthy traditional meetings.
And they tend not to work on the basis of most of
the team being in a room and two people tagged on as
virtual participants. The etiquette of such a
meeting will inevitably be room-based, and the
dynamic will probably marginalise the remote
participants, and they'll end up doing something
else while pretending to take part.
All meetings need to be paperless.
This way any participant, wherever they are, can
have access to all information and tools needed to
support the interaction and decision-making. These
kinds of meetings should include the ability for any
participant to take control of a shared screen or
whiteboard (physical or virtual) when the need
Meetings can be shorter, more informal
and in different places. With a range of
activity-based work settings and places available
beyond the office, many of the things we deal with
in meetings, and whole meetings too sometimes, can
take place outside the formal bookable meeting room.
They can be in breakout spaces, cafe areas, cafes
outside the office or in purpose-built confidential
rooms or '20 minute meeting spaces'. They can
take place through ad hoc use of conferencing
technologies. It all depends on the nature of the
Then - what are meetings for?
Generally, face-to-face meetings should
be reserved for high-interaction activities
such as decision-making, brainstorming, training,
critical client meetings and 'getting to know you'
meetings. Even then, many of these are routinely
done using technologies in geographically dispersed
organisations and project teams. And there is still
room for some deconstruction around what exactly
'face to face' should mean in different
circumstances. That is the topic for a future
In the meantime, why not set a target for your
organisation, department or team. Cut meetings by
30%. Or 50%. How radical can you be? And how much
time and resource can you liberate to be more