The Bad Meeting Fairy

by Bates, Suzanne Saturday, April 17, 2010
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We were crammed like sardines into a conference room smaller than my kid sister’s bedroom growing up, and believe me that’s Lilliputian - it was a sewing room before she came along and sort of surprised my parents. Anyway, the Bates team was crowded into our smallest meeting room debating whether the image of a Native American should be included on a PowerPoint slide with a proverb that we had recently learned could not be credibly traced to a single source. Indian? Buddhist? Native American? Photo or no photo? Attribute to anonymous? Red or blue background for the quote? This conversation among well paid consultants drifted on for several minutes until somebody woke up, blew the whistle and said, “Can we move on?”

It wouldn’t have mattered had we also not just spent precious minutes deciding which bullet points to eliminate on a slide about why storytelling is important. Generally the rule is six bullet point lines per page so your audience doesn’t have to squint. There were maybe 7 or 8 bullet points so the raging issue was which ones should stay and which ones should go and couldn’t we shorten the messages because it was too much information which it was but they were all important so what should we do...5 minutes later...you know the drill.

This was not a meeting to prepare a PowerPoint presentation. It was a planning session about creating an exceptional event for a new client. It’s not that the little things don’t matter - of course they do - it’s just that six or eight people editing a slide is not a good use of time and resources.

That’s what got me thinking about how it’s just so darn easy for even productive professional people to lose their way and get swept up in the minutiae.

Why does it happen so often? How do we end up in the weeds? One minute there’s an important topic on the table; the next minute everybody has lapsed into a coma. It’s as if the Bad Meeting Fair came along and sprinkled ”sleep dust” into everybody’s eyes. A trance-like state overcomes the room; those immune to pixie dust are restating the obvious and dawdling over issues that matter not; everybody else has saucer eyes. Someone walking into the room at that moment would easily spot The Meeting Stare. You know - people around the table day-dreaming about buying a summer home or ruminating about whether to ditch the Lean Cuisine and go out for a turkey wrap and tortilla soup.

As communications consultants, our firm teaches seminars on meeting best practices and effectiveness. If I do say so myself, it’s one of our better courses. So I certainly don’t mean to imply by sharing that story that we don’t practice what we preach. I’m proud of our team because we’re pretty good at planning meetings, creating accurate, timed agendas, stating and ending on time, and fostering productive conversation that leads to action steps and accountability. We have a great rapport which makes it easy to use humor and good natured jabs to get back on topic. Yes, we are human and we get off course but what makes it work is we are also allowed to pull out the red flag out and throw it if the group goes off course.

It isn’t a failure if your meeting occasionally goes into the weeds; it’s whether and how you pull out that determines your success. If everybody comes in the door with a clear sense of purpose, determined to get it done and get out, then you are more likely to avoid prolonged debates about nothing that take you back to your desk for a Tylenol after the meeting. What I’m saying is that everybody in the room needs to be empowered to pull the flag and call people on “weedy” conversation when the meeting goes down a rat hole.

What is at stake isn’t just productivity and efficiency, though that would be enough. If your meetings aren’t well run, then good people will conclude that they don’t belong there. The people you want in your organization won’t stay because they won’t thrive in a culture where time is wasted. They don’t want to hang out with colleagues who don’t seem to care if little is accomplished. Meetings are important and necessary but you can’t allow them to become the Godzilla that ate your company.

One way to encourage this culture is to manage time on each topic in a mindful way. Every meeting doesn’t need to be an hour. They can be 25 minutes. Or 7. People make fun of me when they see my agendas with odd numbers, but I really try to think - is this worth five minutes or three? Could we do this in 7 instead of 10? Add it up - you can shave off a lot of time and avoid a lot of minutiae this way.

Prepare an agenda, time it, keep people on course and let everybody know they’re also responsible for keeping things moving. And, if the Bad Meeting Fairy shows up, get out your old tennis racket and shoe her out of the room.