Read This Before Our Next Meeting - Al Pittampalli
03 August 2011
Every once in a while, I invite cool people who have written books to share their knowledge with Personal MBA readers. Al Pittampalli is on a quest to save the world from horribly-organized, productivity-draining, soul-destroying meetings. I think you’ll enjoy his personal notes on the key ideas in Read This Before Our Next Meeting. – Josh
About Al Pittampalli and Read This Before Our Next Meeting
Al Pittampalli is a speaker, author, and meeting “culture warrior.” As a former IT advisor at Ernst & Young LLP, Al worked on-site at Fortune 1000 companies all across the country. He sat in a lot of meetings… and he’s still recovering.
Al is embarking an a revolution dedicated to eradicating the traditional meeting, and replacing it with what he calls the “Modern Meeting.” The goal is to save people time, effort, and precious sanity.
Here are ten big ideas from Al Pittampalli’s Read This Before Our Next Meeting:
1. Meetings are broken beyond repair. We can’t fix them, we have to reinvent them.
An overabundance of ineffective and wasteful meetings is plaguing organizations and frustrating individuals everywhere. For years, the meeting efficiency movement has tried desperately to make meetings better.
It hasn’t worked, at all. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Every organization must destroy the traditional meeting, and starting from scratch fundamentally redefine it. We’ll call this reinvention the Modern Meeting.
2. Traditional meetings create a culture of compromise.
Meetings are structured in a way that kill action and enable us to pass of responsibility too easily. The committee mentality ensures that instead of one individual being responsible and accountable for making a decision, the bystander effect takes over and a diffusion of responsibility occurs.
Even slightly innovative ideas require someone willing to step up and champion them, but traditional meetings’ obsession with consensus ensures these ideas almost never move forward. This results in safe, boring, compromised decisions (or none at all).
3. Traditional meetings kill our sense of urgency.
As Peter Drucker said, one can either meet or work: you can’t do both at the same time. When we spend too much time inside of meetings, progress slows and truly great work never occurs.
This phenomenon is fueled by one simple truth: meetings are often useful for the leader, but not for the participants. And because anyone can call a meeting, everyone does. This creates an environment of constant interruption.
In addition, false urgent meetings kill employees sense of speed and trust. When we find out a meeting that was supposed to be “critical” wasn’t, it’s hard not to think, “Why bother?”
4. At the heart of meeting excess is a decision problem.
Individuals inside organizations are terrified of making decisions, so they call meetings instead. Those meetings turn into more meetings and the cycle is often never ending. It’s the perfect crime, the decision maker gets to delay in a way that appears productive.
Of course sometimes holding a meeting is a strategic decision, but most of the time it’s an emotional one, spurred by fear. Meetings have become the default stalling tactic for tough decisions.
5. A Modern Meeting exists for one reason: to support a decision that has already been made.
Unlike traditional meetings that stifle decision making, the Modern Meeting is structured so the bias is towards action.
When you have a decision to make, you must make the decision first, before you can call a meeting. You can get input from others individually if you want through one-on-one conversations, but until you make your decision, a meeting can’t be called.
Once a decision is made, you can call a meeting to support that decision. There are two ways meetings support decisions, through conflict or coordination.
6. There are only two activities for which a Modern Meeting is worth convening, conflict or coordination.
Once a preliminary decision is made by an individual, it might be useful to allow a debate of conflicting opinions. After all, moderate levels of conflict by groups can lead to more intelligent decisions.
The debate might enable the decision maker to change his decision or simply alter some of the aspects of that decision.
Once the decision is resolved, sometimes the scenarios are tricky and the steps are vague. It’s worth getting smart people in a room to engage in the type of collaborative problem solving necessary to support a plan or launch a product.
7. Death to the informational meeting!
To keep the Modern Meeting powerful, we have to cancel the meetings that don’t directly support decisions. The most frequent offender: meetings whose sole purpose is to disseminate information.
The cost of holding a meeting is extraordinary. There are so many better and cheaper alternatives (e-mail, recorded audio, recorded video) that allow people to consume information on their own time.
Here’s the key: important information still needs to get reliably communicated throughout the organization. So we can only realistically cancel all informational meetings if we institute a sacred pact.
Everyone must read the memos, without fail. If even a few people fail to read, it jeopardizes the system of trust, and the entire system crumbles.
8. The Modern Meeting moves fast and ends on schedule.
Deadlines are procrastination’s worst enemy. Since the modern meeting optimizes for the decision, and we realize pressure leads to resolution, we keep meetings fast and ruthlessly on time.
Hard stops make it necessary for groups to come together and prevent decisions from being stalled. In fact, too much time often leads to more anxiety, more doubt, and then even the most unshakable decision can fall apart.
9. Brainstorming is not a meeting. It’s the anti-meeting.
Unfortunately, we’ve lumped brainstorming into the “meeting” category. It’s not, it’s the opposite. Modern Meetings are focused on decision, the narrowing of options.
In order to maintain a healthy ecosystem for ideas, we must be sure to balance this with sessions dedicated to the creation of possibilities. Luckily, brainstorming magically results in the mass generation of options.
Brainstorming should look extremely different from ordinary meetings. No criticism or evaluation should be present. Get passionate people in the room and intimidating ones out. Make it fun, make it active, and make it as creative as possible.
10. The quality of your meetings is the quality of your organization.
Meetings were created to provide needed coordination in your organization. We need meetings to ensure intelligent decisions are made and to make sure teams are interacting effectively on projects.
The promise of organization is that many people working together can produce much more than the sum of those people working individually. It’s the intersections between teams, departments, and business units that make this possible.
We have to reinvent the meeting in a way that is worthy of the work we do every day. Let’s reinvent.
About Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli
Meetings are broken. Read This Before Our Next Meeting is a manifesto written in response to an antiquated meetings system. The solution is the “Modern Meeting Standard”: 7 simple principles that change the way an organization makes decisions and coordinates action.
Give this book to your colleagues who organize horrible meetings, and change the world for the better.
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