It’s probably fair to say that most people have a similar view of office meetings: there are too many of them and they generally have too little value. It’s become something of an obsession for some of your colleagues, (and possibly for you too, note), to call people together as a first resort when there is the perception of information worth sharing.
There are tons of ways to limit the number of meetings, such as more efficient email communication, or more regular and open conversations, but since it seems unlikely we’ll ever do away with them entirely, perhaps it’s worth considering ways to change their context.
Whenever possible, change the location. A year or so ago, I watched a group of people in shirt and ties, sitting in a circle on the grass in the Company’s Garden in Cape Town (a public park named for the Dutch East India Company, which founded it in 1650-odd), in front of a man with a flipchart. When I asked them what they were doing, they explained that they were brainstorming.
Meetings take place in coffee shops, on lawns, in the fresh air of the company rooftop, all the time.
While your company meeting rooms may be convenient, they have two major drawbacks: their historical context (the way they’ve typically been used) and the fact that they’re usually bland enough to make the air inside seem like a shot of Novocain.
In comparison, I remember almost every word that was said at a company get-together some years ago alongside the beach at the Ritz-Carlton in Dubai and a few years before that, when a group of colleagues and I discussed ideas on a catamaran as we sailed around Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Whenever possible, make it active. There’s a Latin term: Solvitur Ambulando, which simply translates as it is solved by walking. If we take that literally, next time you have a meeting, combine it with a stroll around the building, or around a local park. Not only does it tick the location box above, it also has the added advantage of making the normal distractions less likely. It’s really hard to whatsapp your friends while you’re walking around in a group, for example
More importantly though, it creates a different creative context for your thinking. If I had ten cents for every time I have heard someone tell me that their best ideas come to them in the shower, or while shaving, or on the drive to work, I’d have a pretty heavy piggy bank right now. I’d be stone cold broke if I applied the same rule to the number of people who have told me they have their best ideas in company meeting rooms.
Structure your meeting like a novel. Should you attend a fiction writing class, one of the bits of advice you’ll receive is to start your story as close to the end as possible. If your story is about a murderer on the run, you should start it after the murder has taken place, and the murderer is already running, The backstory can reveal itself along the way, but it is not the fundamental story.
Likewise, it should fall to the meeting organizer to ensure everyone attending the meeting is on the same page before they enter the room, to avoid the common scenario where all the clued up people have to listen to half an hour of backstory for those who don’t yet have it. It’s probably true that in so doing, the need for the meeting may be entirely obviated, but that’s no bad thing, right?
There is no shortage of meeting hacks, to make them shorter, more focused, and deliver an unambiguous outcome, but I firmly believe that to create engagement, our search for improvements should be much broader.