Meetings, still the ultimate time thief!

I see that the British Film Institute is to preserve the Video Arts back catalogue including John Cleese’s excellent “Meetings, Bloody Meetings”. Whenever I have shown that film to management teams I usually end with the quip that “of course it is an exaggeration” invariably to be met with a response along the lines of ‘not that much!’

I recently had cause to read the minutes of a quarterly board level meeting of a global corporate. The whole meeting was reactive, looking back at what had occurred in the previous period – except that the staffing process through the layers was so long that the previous period ended 3 months before. So we had the most senior people in the business taking decisions on data that was actually in some instances 6 months old. When I looked at the food chain of lower level meetings that had taken place, the same issues had been discussed multiple times anyway and many of the decisions had either been taken or overtaken by events. If you looked at executive diaries, many were in perpetual meetings – a wonder they had time for work. So what we had was a series of reactive meetings. To use an analogy, the business was being steered like you driving your car by looking through the rear view mirror. Something that you might get away with at 3am if you are lucky but the chances are you will get hit by a truck.

I still see many teams getting the basics wrong. Not so long ago I listened to a management team discussing the disappearance of toilet rolls for most of their meeting and just like John Cleese’s team discussing car parking there were far more important production issues to address.

However, the area that is most often neglected is making sure that the meeting is proactive. Here are a few things you can do so you can start spending more time on the future than the past:

  • You have to know where you are, but when a KPI is behind target or a project milestone is missed make sure that those responsible for presenting them come to the meeting armed with some options for getting back on track and an estimate of what the numbers will look like at the next meeting. Off target numbers are a rich source of projects, especially for Lean Sigma Green Belts. Make sure someone is tasked to look at the underlying process issues so it does not happen again.
  • Always took forward. So if you have a monthly management team meeting that reviews KPIs focus on whether you will achieve your year targets, your forecast of out-turn. The quicker you act to correct deviations the easier it will be, especially if you have been given challenging targets. I have lost count of the number of companies I have worked in that have to implement emergency hiring and travel freezes in Q3. Again, this is a rich area for improvement projects but they are invariably more tricky and have a longer lead time. If you do this, then you can spend more time contingency planning so your next decisions, when you are really under pressure, can be sped up.
  • Delegate. A friend I had been working with gave the following response to his CEO who asked him a question about a customer order (incidentally that the CEO should not have been concerned with) “I don’t know, but if there was an issue my team would have told me”. So, decide who takes what decision, what the escalation rules are and let them get on with it.

and if you need some more tips, watch that video Meetings, Bloody Meetings

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