If we accept the commonly held conception that meetings are everywhere and always a big waste of time, then why do we meet so regularly? People are not sheep, and should be able to recognize a waste of time and be able to prioritize accordingly. Sometimes in fact I think people see meetings as a one hour vacation from the regular work they do, and take as many meetings as possible. Have you ever noticed how few people actually contribute during a meeting - either by participating in the conversation or decisions or agreeing to take an action item away from a meeting?
This is not to say that I find meetings unimportant - just that I don't think everyone shares the opinion that meetings should add value to what we do. As I see it there are at least five reasons to have a meeting:
- Provide status of a project or business function to those who are responsible for progress but are not involved day to day
- Request resources from peers and superiors - this can be in terms of dollars or human capital
- Gather input on a design from a wide range of individuals - commonly used when a difficult problem arises with no clear "right" answer.
- Inform the "troops" about the direction the group or business is heading, especially if a big change will occur
- Sell people products or ideas
I will break these down into two large categories. Generally, we meet to inform, educate and persuade, or to gather data from others. In the first instance (inform, educate and/or persuade) the purpose is to broadcast information and allow people to ask questions. This is what I call a Tell or Sell meeting. The only reason to do this as a meeting rather than a conference call is to allow open, honest discussion and obtain feedback. So if the participants don't interact (which happens quite often) what's the point of meeting? Just stick the information in a website or email or host a teleconference so people can take the one hour vacation right at their desks!
In the second category of meetings - generating alternatives, data gathering and design - it's important that everyone who attends contribute ideas and information because that's the whole point of the meeting. When designing a semiconductor chip or a new software application, the people in the room should be there precisely because they have valuable knowledge and information to contribute. When generating alternatives or brainstorming, lack of participation hurts the end product. If the individuals don't contribute, what's the point of having them in the room?
This categorization is probably oversimplified but in the end the point remains. We generally meet to educate, inform, persuade or sell ideas, in which case few people need to speak and therefore few people need to attend, or to generate alternatives, provide different or unique insights or gather data, in which case everyone who attends should contribute.
If meetings are important (and many are) and they are part of being productive and getting things done (as they should be) then the people who attend should contribute and should understand that expectation up front. Those that attend and don't participate should be disinvited to future meetings because they are not adding value. It's also important to set a clear expectation among the potential meeting attendees as to the purpose and outcome of the meeting. What's the goal for the meeting and what will be different afterwards? Finally, this diatribe also suggests that meetings should be made as small as possible in terms of attendees, and everyone who attends should expect to contribute. Whenever possible, especially in the first category, ask yourself if what you want to do can be accomplished through good communication in email, voicemail or on a department newsletter or website rather than a meeting.