5 Reasons Meetings Never Improve

Unless you’ve had your headbusiness meeting sad expression negative gesture in the sand or like to waste time, you know meetings suck up a tremendous amount of valuable time.  You’ve also read lots of advice that is supposed to help. You’ve probably even tried some of that advice. And you are not alone.

So why is it that meetings are still wasting so much time and everyone is still complaining about them?

This is why: 99% of the advice you’ve heard for improving meetings doesn’t work.

1. Typical advice assumes meetings are the problem.

It’s as if meetings create some sort of evil force that destroys time and renders people incompetent. To conquer that force, we need rules and tools to control people.

But meetings are not the problem. Meetings are just how we work together. Unproductive meetings have nothing to do with meetings and everything to do with a lack of clarity. Meetings simply expose and amplify any lack of clarity. If you are unclear about what you are trying to accomplish while sitting alone at your desk, no one need know. You might not even recognize the fact yourself. But walk into a room full of people and let all the horses out of the barn, and its just luck if anything is accomplished. As a matter of fact, the more helpful, determined, intelligent, and extroverted the group, the more different and interesting directions they can take any topic!

2. Typical advice focuses on tools.

Tools like agendas top most lists. But most agendas actually increase waste because you not only waste time in the meeting, you waste time creating the agenda, especially if you take the time to get the formatting right. The vast majority of agendas simply prescribe how you are going to waste the time and do nothing to prevent the waste of time. Every day I witness serious, earnest people talking about agenda topics with great discipline. Unfortunately, just because a discussion is focused, disciplined, and interesting, doesn’t mean anything is accomplished.

Time frames are another favorite tool. By assigning limited time, the hope is that somehow, something will be accomplished. By assigning limited time, the hope is that somehow something will be accomplished.” If nothing else, you can let the clock decide you are done so you lose less time. This advice is usually coupled with suggestions about big clocks or an hourglass. Dripping sand can pump up the pressure and make people talk faster, but it will not improve their ability to make group decisions.

3. Typical advice creates rules to control people.

One favorite rule is locking doors at the starting time. Since when does it make sense to continue without critical voices present? You wouldn’t invite anyone to a meeting who wasn’t critical, would you? Maybe if meetings were productive and participants were critical, people would arrive on time! If not, I suggest you tell them how rude they are.

Another rule is to forbid speaking until a ball or some other object is passed to you. This is supposed to ensure only one person talks at a time. (It is especially effective in the winter. “Please pass the germs!”) If your employees don’t know how to take turns talking, they need the course on civil behavior, not on effective meetings.

Here is one more ineffective rule: Leave cell phones at the door. If your meetings are really effective, everyone will forget about their cell phones. No one will be texting or checking email. The only interruptions will be the right interruptions –  emergencies.

No chairs. Another favorite of mine. Standing may make people uncomfortable and eager to be done, but since when does pain improve decision making?

4. Typical advice prescribes roles.

Roles are another misguided effort to improve meetings. I always feel sorry for these people. The minute taker dutifully records, but how does that increase the likelihood of results? If you actually make a list or a decision, it certainly makes sense to write it down, but taking notes will do nothing to ensure that happens.

Time keepers are equally helpless. They get to watch time fly and try to interrupt, but mostly they just get to be the person most painfully aware every minute the group spends making little progress.

5. Typical advice does nothing to address the root cause of ineffective meetings.

Meetings are effective only if you walk out with specific results that you didn’t have going in. And that will only happen quickly and effectively if you walk in knowing what needs to be different when the meeting ends. What decision or list or plan, specifically, do you have to have in your hands at the end to move things forward? If you aren’t clear about this, you will do what just about everyone does. You will review, report, discuss, communicate, and update – all treadmill verbs with no destination. No way to know when you are done. No way to know which direction to go. Or maybe you will try to do nouns. Check out all those agendas everyone insists on these days. See any treadmill verbs or nouns? How can you possibly know when you are done when you get on one of those treadmills?

The root cause of poor meetings is a lack of clarity. None of the typical advice teaches you how to create clarity. If you want to accomplish twice as much in half the time, you must have:

  • Clarity of purpose – What, specifically, what must be different when the meeting ends?
  • Clarity of process – What series of intermediate outcomes will get you to your final outcome?

There are only six types of outcomes, whether intermediate or final, and if you don’t know which you are pursuing, you are unlikely to get there. For more on those six, read “Want Results? Speak the Language of Outcomes!” Specificity creates clarity and clarity is the secret to short and powerful meetings.


forbes logo thumbnailThis article originally appeared on Forbes.com on August 21st, 2016.