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Guest Column: Why meetings have gone from utility to futility: Shubhranshu Singh

13-March-2018
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Guest Column: Why meetings have gone from utility to futility: Shubhranshu Singh

No matter which public or private enterprise you work for, I can confidently claim that you are spending a good portion of your working life in meetings.

The very concept of formal organizational work is unimaginable without the central presence of meetings. This centrality has been strengthened despite everything that ought to have logically weakened its stranglehold e.g. globalization and emergence of multinational teams, technology and its ability to enhance efficiency and communications and the recognition of the individual contributor.

One reason is that humans have survived because of an ability to socialise and collaborate. I imagine that roaming on Africa's plains, our evolutionary ancestors must have rushed to a huddle every time a predator or prey appeared on the scene. Meetings are in our evolutionary encoded behaviour.

Members of the subspecies of corporate homo sapiens are also hierarchical beings where those at the top of the totem pole gain comfort and self-esteem with the modern day version of the durbar. But this is not to dilute the belief that those who are involved in something together must deliberate and decide. And whilst there may be several options to do so, its most manifest form, despite mutations, is what we call a meeting.

Personally, I do believe that one-half of meetings that do get convened, waste time. Meetings and their prescribed quorum also have a way of perpetuating themselves. Meetings serve as testing grounds for political sentiment, rubber stamps and echo chambers. They allow individuals or groups to put diversionary tactics into play, operationalise dilatory manoeuvres and excuse evasion of responsibility. These are but a few amongst their many value destroying ends.

I concede that a meeting serves to unify and align the quorum. The College of Cardinals, a Parliamentary Committee, the group of G-8 Nations, Army Commanders, Members of Parliament and many more such affiliations are actually derived from being in respective meetings in permanence. Their affiliation is their entitlement to meet and their being in the quorum.

In a business, role separation makes inter-functional co-ordination essential and surely meetings do serve to get the different units represented together or apart.

But even here, one notices the form and ceremony of the meetings often substitutes for any real decision-making capacity, this is the essence of my critique. Meetings are camouflage for the intentions of those who are powerful. Let us consider decision processes as an example. Have you encountered situations where the presentation of facts, forceful opinions or even an epiphany has resulted in a vote? In the brute majority of cases, the chair gets to decide while the others merely opine, substantiate and debate. Thus the assembly is, in fact, an auxiliary and the words are cheap.

Another way to confirm the futility, as well as value destructive nature of routine meetings, is to ask if there are folks who would actually like more meetings. Tell me when you find them. The burden of meetings is that it completely throws your day job and deliverables off track. All you do is what is required for the meeting.

Let us imagine a divisional boss who calls a meeting with 20 odd managers attending a meeting for half of the day on every Monday! That's almost 100 hours of productive work time bled away on the first day of the week. The bulk of this time will be inevitably spent listening to things where you were neither expected to contribute and whether your opinion, if any, matters. Yet the assumption is that everyone is aligned and immersed on a weekly basis. Open your mouth "Ha Ha Ha !"

Another patented meeting is the public inquisition. Here, the target is some unfortunate karmic accident victim of the week who is picked upon by the boss and the quorum is present only to make the spectacle genuinely awe-inspiring and later becomes the breaking news of the office.

Did I mention the data feeder meetings? Here every point made is suspect and a platoon of data persons are at hand to cross-check, verify, corroborate or dispute as the case may be. Sigh! the impossibility of vetting the data as a part of a pre-read because after all, meetings are important and the platoon is there to service the exclusive data drawing prerogative of the boss.

Then there is the staged meeting with a contingent of the better-dressed consultants. Their arrival and entrenchment announce career ending finales for many with "It must've been love but it's over now…" playing in the background.

Sins of meetings:

1) Unstructured accelerators for confusions because of the absence of any agenda or clear pre-work

2) Presentation Bias: What is said must look good and sound good and ideally resonate with what is in the mind of those who can decide. Any business utility is secondary.

3) Decision forum which becomes a discussion forum only to end in an exhausted capitulation to what is, in fact, pre-decided.

4) No recap or reading of minutes in the end. The minutes come massaged or altered away from the spirit of the discussion. A resolution has then to be taken offline, gets enmeshed in emails and has to wait until the next meeting with lesser progress than expected in the interim.

5) Idea and decision killers: The trained gladiators let loose, these are the praetorian guards who then line up for succession roles on the corporate ladder.

6) Deference to hierarchy: No contention of ideas. Allowance of time by rank. The decision by the highest tax payer.

7) Respect for time and agreed duration - Huh?

Certainly, the number and duration of meetings cannot be in the linear proportion to the increase in business, therefore, even when the institutional mandate is to rejoice in holdings meetings, surely greater efficiency can be hoped for.

  • No topic should be brought before a meeting of business leaders which has not been discussed and circulated with the functions and departments concerned. 
  • Interdepartmental angst must be settled inter-departmentally. 
  • Unfortunately, meetings become occasions for ambushes, last-minute revelation of vital information and plain obfuscation when the chair doesn't effectively enforce the right behaviours.
  • Pre-circulated papers of context building and a definite agenda outlining decision expected will limit the scope for prejudice, malice or mischief. 
  • Decisions must be taken based on the submission made and discussions done at the meetings. Referral to the committee is expedient. As we ought to acknowledge, expediency is no morality.
There will come a day when meetings may well be 2 minutes per person updates, when everyone will be attentive, a large room with a large table won't be the battleground, folks won't address the chair but speak to each other and when operating units will devolve powers upon operation manager such that they don't have to explain and ask for decisions.

Till that day arrives, keep the faith!

Shubhranshu Singh is a marketer based out of Mumbai.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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