Musings on meeting hijackings

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I had a meeting “hijacked” the other day. I had it coming. I’d been working with a client over the last couple of weeks and had needed quite a few hours the executive team didn’t have to give me, so I did what any good consultant would do… I worked with them to find meetings they could skip or cancel, or other meetings that I could hijack. But soon enough, someone had something more important than me so they showed up at my meeting and took over…

This behavior and overall meeting culture is by no means unique to the particular client situation I was navigating. These days, managers and executives at large companies are generally in meetings back to back, throughout the day, often without a break for lunch. Forget trying to leave slots open; if someone internal doesn’t grab it, a vendor will skinny in via an executive assistant. Executives try to block “work time” or out of office time, but their assistants often know to take that time if someone comes up with a compelling enough reason. Execs have no choice but to skip meetings, change the subject of meetings to items of higher importance or work on other things during the meetings.

So this may seem a little off topic from my typical blog fodder, but I actually think this meeting management thing is a key driver of IT organizational effectiveness. If managers and executives are wasting their time in poorly run meetings, or in meetings they shouldn’t even be attending in the first place, they are unable to solve more important problems or think strategically about how to be proactive.

But if this problem is so pervasive, why hasn’t someone figured out the secret sauce? Countless articles and books have been written on the topic and it still seems that companies are sinking further into meeting quicksand.

I’ve seen a couple of strategies work with moderate success. Some companies require meeting PALs (Purpose, Agenda, Logistics) to even set up a meeting. The Purpose defines what will be done in the meeting: information sharing, decision-making, brainstorming, etc. The Agenda ensures realistic topics and time limits. The Logistics defines who should attend, what should be prepared, and when the meeting will happen to ensure all runs smoothly. Note: some use “limits” as the “L” in PAL. Another, more covert, but often more effective strategy is to hire really good executive assistance as the gatekeeper to an executive’s time. I’m always impressed when I come across an assistant who can understand my meeting topic and slot me in the right priority, rescheduling other activities that might not be so important, or making me wait because I don’t deserve to get on the calendar anytime soon.

So that’s all dandy, but it isn’t enough. I like both of those strategies, but I think we need more. We need clocks in every room and a rule that meetings start on time and end either 5 or 10 minutes early depending on the size of the building. We need a buzzer in the middle of every table so that attendees can obnoxiously signal the facilitator if the meeting goes off track. Dollars can be collected for charity for violations – like if people are late or go off topic. Time spent in meetings should be tracked in the time system and executives should work to reduce the amount of time in administrative sessions. Every 6-12 months, the leadership should holistically review the regular organizational meetings to assess effectiveness and make changes to ensure tactical and strategic needs are met. We probably need a weekly “meeting killer” task force meeting to assess meeting effectiveness and create new meeting killer strategies. KIDDING! About the meeting part of it at least…

Those are just some ideas to get things started but then we still need to make sure that time is allocated to the strategic aspect of executive jobs. Individuals can block time, but it would be better to get an organizational culture around certain days being held sacred. A once a month “no meeting day” would be a start, but blocking a day or a part of the day each week to be a work zone would be even better. I’d recommend Wednesdays as a good mid-week break that, unlike Fridays, doesn’t just encourage long weekends.

I’d welcome other ideas … both things that you all have seen that have worked as well as your crazy ideas (like mine) that might be the secret sauce.