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Meetings: what a waste of time

29 September 2014  

In an age of instant communication we still make cross-country trips for summits that take 20 minutes, blogs John Bowen. 


Is that how you feel about meetings? It certainly reflected my view for much of my management time and influenced the way that I ran meetings myself. And while much of the fault lies with the participants, the real blame for a bad meeting lies with the person chairing it.

From the early 1980s I have regularly had to travel three to four hours to get to a meeting that will last most of the day and then be faced with a longer drive home again. Longer because I would set off between four and five in the morning to get there and enjoy fairly quiet motorways, but coming home would inevitably result in catching the rush-hour somewhere and over the years I have amassed numerous places to drop off the motorway and spend a quiet hour over a meal while I wait for the traffic to thin out again. 

It was a lesson learned the hard way because some of my early journeys home were marathons – eight-and-a-half hours from Manchester to Swindon being about the worst.

The problem with a lot of meetings was that people seemed to feel the need to speak and often instead of just saying “I agree with what John has said”, they would repeat my argument (or anyone else’s). Plato said: “Wise men speak when they have something to say; fools because they have to say something”, and he gets my vote every time. Part of the problem is that too many people prefer the one about “Do I keep quiet and have them think I’m a fool or do I open my mouth and prove it”, so they listen to someone speak and see that it gets approving nods, think that it must be good and rush in to show that they knew it too.

Meetings are an important tool and the person running the meeting is there to achieve an objective because even if the meeting is just a routine periodical one it must have a purpose or it should not be a meeting. It is their job to get to that objective with the most economical use of the organisation’s resources and they should not allow waffle or any form of time-wasting. They should ensure that people can prepare and deliver on the day – get it done and move on.

In these days of technology many meetings do not need to happen because an exchange of emails can be done in less time than many meetings take; mobile telephony means that people are more accessible and we have the wonders of portable video-conferencing if we absolutely have to see each other. Earlier this year I attended two meetings in the north-west of the UK and was asked – in accordance with the host’s green credentials – to use the train. With five trains on the first trip and four on the second, I was away from home for around nine hours on each day. The first meeting took 25 minutes and the second 20; both were scheduled for two hours.

I’ll not drone on any longer – I’ve written a book on the subject anyway, but you get the point. If you need to get something done have a meeting if you must, but if you do, consider Plato and maybe his words should be part of your introductory remarks at the meeting. Better still, write it up on the whiteboard and point to it from time to time.

John Bowen is an FM consultant

http://thatconsultantbloke.wordpress.com/