On occasion I will turn back to the old whipping boy - meetings - to see if there are ways we can reduce them, improve them or eliminate them all together. While we've process-improved just about every facet of corporate life, the remaining anachronism, the unreconstructed Neanderthal (not to disparage cavemen) is the meeting.
Our cavedwelling forefathers would be astonished at most daily business practices, but would feel right at home in a meeting. Rather than a large polished table, they'd suggest a warm fire, but other than that discrepancy there'd be little they would disagree with. For them, meetings took place in a dark, drab environment very similar to most meeting rooms, huddled in a circle, led by one or two respected elders. Oh, probably the other difference between cavemen and our meetings today is that just about every meeting for the cavemen had to do with life and death issues. I doubt they huddled together to discuss the need for compliance for Sarbanes-Oxley. However, if they understood the issues they would probably fit right in to the meeting.
This analysis calls into question whether the meeting as it is defined today has been perfectly optimized over the lifespan of mankind, and is at the pinnacle of its efficiency, or if we just haven't improved the meeting in several thousand years. The evidence suggests there's not a lot of satisfaction with meetings, so perhaps we can seek to improve them.
Meetings can be held for a number of different purposes with a broad array of attendees, to obtain a wide range of results. Meetings can be held to educate, to inform, to gain consensus, to make a decision, to celebrate an event. Meetings can be very short, or very long. They can be held face to face or, increasingly, in a distributed fashion.
What's changed the most about meetings since the early cavemen is the direction of the conversation. Early cavemen had one key leader. The meetings revolved around his decisions and the tasks he distributed. Over the last 100 years or so, as we've begun to move away from top-down hierarchies into more consensus based management and flatter organizational structures, meetings have become a method to inform everyone who is impacted by a decision or approach, or to seek consensus. Thus, we have more meetings, since any key decision today is likely to impact a number of teams or functions, and we invite more people, since more people are likely to be involved, but the stakes in most cases are much lower.
That probably hits right at the heart of at least one issue with meetings - in most cases, for most attendees, the stakes are very low. They'll likely have no action items or responsibilities coming out of the meeting, or just some learning takeaways. Thus, many people sit in meetings that don't really impact their jobs or performance. Perhaps we need a method to indicate how important the individual is to the meeting, and how much impact the meeting will have on the individual. Another issue with meetings currently is that we are all trained to be interactive and to have opinions, yet few people get to present. So many people in a meeting tune out - or worse open up their laptops or handhelds and start doing "real" work during the meeting. Again, we need to determine if the content of the meeting is important enough to bring these folks in - or look at what I've written about previously - Just in Time Meeting attendance - where the attendee can come in just when they are needed.
The third problem with meetings - and in contrast to our cavemen ancestors - is the number of meetings we are expected to attend. I can't imagine that most cavemen moved around the cave from meeting location to meeting location, then did their hunting and gathering between the hours of 4 to 6 pm each day. Probably quite the contrary. Now, I know you'll argue that we do more "thinking" work and need more interaction than cavemen, but I'll counter with the fact that many people in meetings are actually doing work on the side, and coming in early or staying late to get their "real" work done. Meetings have become a time filler and a measure of importance. If someone's calendar is really full, then they must be "important" - how many people in your meetings actually add value, and how many are there for the one hour mental vacation?
What are we doing in most meetings that can't be done in some other way? I'm willing to grant that some educational or introductory meetings have to be done face to face, but many status meetings, communication meetings and so forth could be accomplished using improved collaboration capabilities. If we had better collaboration solutions, to include IM, Chat, document management, intelligent search and so forth, we could eliminate a lot of meetings because the information would exist where people could find it. We could even distribute the decision making through some combined voting or ranking heuristic in the application, rather than collect people from all over the organization to drive to one small, dank, dark meeting room to discuss something that could have been done online.
The only way this is going to change is from the top. Managers and team leaders need to demand communication and collaboration capabilities that allow people to participate in a "meeting" when they want and where they want, and as they are needed. There needs to be a better way to determine the importance and urgency of a meeting and the individual's role in the meeting. Finally, there needs to be a better way to manage the tasks and actions that come out of a meeting, and communicate the results. If those capabilities exist, we could get everything done that we do today with dramatically less time spent in unproductive meetings, and more time spent using our brains to create something new.