Leaving Blablaland Part II: The Meeting Culture

Fixing The Core Problem in Business:
The Meeting Culture

The capital of BlaBlaLand is the meeting. Meetings are a wasteland – a waste of time, brainpower and money. We all know it: we all dread meetings that cut our most productive working hours of our day. When we finally get to leave the room, we are both stressed and bored: so little accomplished, so much still to do.

The most obvious fix would be to simply cut down on meetings. In reality, though, the frequency of meetings has increased. Half of all office workers attend more meetings now than they did last year. Employees in the US rate 34% of their time spent in meetings as unproductive. To the average office worker, who spends 11 hours per week preparing for and attending meetings, that comes down to more than two hours spent on attendance and preparation every single day. Roughly the same numbers apply in the UK, where companies pour £191 billion a year into meetings, yet employees deem half of them unnecessary.

I am a strong believer in co-creation and collaboration, and in people working together. Only if we learn how to work better together will we solve the most pressing challenges in business and society in general. This must, however, be part of a structural process moving from the classical (old) hierarchical model to the project-driven culture of the 21st century. Today, intensive networking and human interaction are essential for any organization, but that is not what we find in our current meeting culture.

Most managers and organizations put their hopes in technology’s capacity to improve meetings, and in many ways it already has. However, the ability to come together in a nice augmented-reality setting, without the hassle of traveling halfway around the world, and being able to apply fancy new tools and apps are not the cure for what’s actually going wrong in meetings.

It’s the overall setup of meetings that has people frustrated. At the extreme, we find attendees swiping their smartphone screens like junkies just waiting for the next message or email. We find unconscious time together led by the real meeting-killers, the BlaBlas around the meeting table. A healthy meeting culture begins with identifying and managing the following meeting-specific BlaBlas.

#ByeByeBlaBlaLand: No More BlaBla Meetings

First sign for caution: a meeting without a predefined agenda and goal. Without a set goal, meetings can go on forever and for no particular reason. Meetings should not be characterized by aimless rambling but by clearly defined goals. The agenda, shared with all attendees before the meeting, should guide the discussion toward these goals. Jeff Bezos received major media attention this year for his approach to when to have meetings and how to do meetings – notably, by banning PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. This clear and sensible approach got so much attention simply because most meetings aren’t conducted this way. According to a survey of employees in the United States, 63% of meetings they attend are conducted without a pre-planned agenda.

In a well-set-up meeting everyone in the room has no choice but to pay attention. Here are three simple starting points to improve your meeting culture:

1. The Meeting “WHY?”

The easiest way to avoid these purposeless meetings is to rigorously ask why before you agree to attend:

  • Why is this meeting being held?
  • Why does it have to be at this moment in time within the project/process?
  • Why do I need to be there?
  • Why… Why… WHY…?

Keep on asking why until you can make an informed decision and/or the person calling the meeting can’t give an answer. Of course, in turn, when you are the one calling the meeting, it means you should be able to give reasonable answers to such questions.

“The simple art of asking questions can change your life forever.”

Answers like “Because it’s Monday and we always hold team meetings on Monday” give no reason and instantly reveal a case of Gerede* in the sense of tradition. A meeting that is held simply out of habit, a jour-fixe or something similar, concerning either timing or the type of issue to be solved, is a waste of time.

2. The Who and the How Long, The Monologue and the Listener

In a meeting of 9 people, how many people get a chance to talk? Who talks for how long?  A simple, yet hard trick to execute, is to set limits on talking time. You can schedule an rigorous time limit for any meeting. By doing this you will ensure that everyone’s time is well spent. Be cautious though, and know that time-saving can only work in the long run if you yourself become the change you’d like to see. Therefore, whenever you talk or present, listen for the BlaBla factors in your speech and get them under control. Before you speak up, learn to listen; before you keep talking, use silence to your advantage. When you are preparing to speak, ask yourself, “What can I leave out?” If you talk for 5 minutes straight, at least think about getting some air!

3. Sharing and Documenting

Even with a sound agenda and structure, a meeting can lead to time misspent when the results are not documented and afterward shared with the attendees. Also on the subject of shared information, consider this: The purpose of nearly one-quarter of all meetings is information sharing. Ask yourself: Is a meeting the best tool for this task?

In short, we need to cut the BlaBla out of our meeting culture – and out of our own verbal behavior. And Ockham’s Razor is a scalpel suited for the job. This tool is named after the scholastic philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1347/49) and is also called the Law of Parsimony. Ockham may have applied it only to matters of theory and fundamental assumptions in science, but it is easy to see how the following might apply to any kind of opinionated speech, judgment or talk:

“Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate” (Plurality should not be posited without necessity).

In other words: Weigh your words and cut the bullshit.

*In Part 1 of “Leaving BlaBlaLand, we have introduced Heidegger’s Gerede – you can find the piece here.

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