Making Meetings Productive: Adding "Meeting Skills" To Your Leadership Credentials

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Making Meetings Productive

Few things characterize modern management so much as the escalating tendency to have meetings–online and offline. Remarkably, many meetings are time-wasters.

Conducting an effective meeting is an acquired skill. That is, how to make meetings productive can be taught, learned and practiced.

Years ago, courses on how to conduct effective meetings were quite popular. For whatever reason, interest in this all-important subject waned.

Given today's remote workforce realities, managers must be trained to make meetings work, that is, to have meetings contribute to the effectiveness of both the worker and the organization.

Peter F. Drucker observed most meetings are boring, lack clear-cut objectives and a meaningful structure.

Equally counterproductive is the tendency for people to leave a meeting in the state of harmony and good feeling but without any sense of direction or program of action.

Donald Keogh, former president of Coca-Cola discussed in his best-selling book the Ten Commandments for Business Failure how Drucker hammered this point home to him:

"He would tell me after each [consulting] session–don't tell me you had a wonderful meeting with me. Tell me what you're going do on Monday that's different."

Perhaps an easier way to express this is to say many kinds of meetings should conclude with a work plan. From the work plan first derives measurable goals and targets. What results are needed? Where? When?

Coupled or integrated into the work plan is clear-cut accountability, work assignments and deadlines for performance. Said Drucker: "Work without deadlines is not work assigned but work toyed with."

Out of Sight, Out of Memory

Most managers, for example, spend an enormous amount of time in meetings making capital appropriations decisions. But amazingly few managers pay much attention to what happens after the capital investment has been approved.

In many companies (and government agencies) there is no way of finding out. To be sure, if a new multi-million CRM database falls behind schedule or costs a great deal more than was originally planned, everybody knows about it.

But once the CRM system is up and running, there's not much attention paid to comparing its performance with the expectations that led to the investment.

What are we saying? Effective managers have meetings to assess the effectiveness of their past decisions. This becomes a learning experience for all involved. And that leads to better, more informed decision-making in the future.

Too Many Meetings Are a Symptom of Malorganization

Meetings, said Peter F. Drucker, are by definition a concession to a deficient organization. "For one either works or meets. One cannot do both at the same time."

"In an ideal design structure (which is only a dream)," according to Drucker, "there would be no meetings…Everybody would know what he/she needs to know to do his job. Everybody would have the resources available to him/her to do his job…Meetings are necessary because people holding different jobs have to cooperate to get a specific task done...

… We meet because the knowledge and experience needed in a specific situation are not available in one head, but have to be pieced together out of experience and knowledge of several people…

...Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings--some formal, some informal, but stretching out for hours… Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed…" Drucker asserted.

"An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done…

… As a rule, meetings should never be allowed to become the main demand on an executive's time…"

Drucker's Point?

Excessive meetings are a symptom of a major organizational problem. The company's organizational structure must be redesigned to achieve desired results.

The right organizational structure does not guarantee success. The wrong organizational structure guarantees nonperformance and an epidemic of meetings.

Problem Meetings Versus Opportunity Meetings

Drucker taught us results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. This is a major Drucker principle.

But let us be clear. Problems must be solved. But to survive and thrive, organizations must direct considerable attention to capitalizing on opportunities.

Now, we're going to show how Drucker's principle "resources, to produce results, must be allocated to opportunities, rather than problems" can be turned into a practice, that is, into a tactic or actual doing.

It's really quite simple. A typical business meeting concerns itself with the care and feeding of problems; successes are usually ignored.

For example, in reading monthly revenue numbers, most executives become alarmed when negative deviations between expected and actual numbers occur.

And, of course, this is a major cause for concern. And the reasons for the deviations should be rendered explicit and the appropriate actions taken.

Indeed, given today's environment, "the constant crisis" receives all the attention. But–and this is a very big but–without searching for major opportunities, many organizations put themselves in future peril.

Management, observed Drucker, tends to congratulate themselves when things do not get worse. But struggling with solving problems at the expense of exploiting opportunities spells long-term trouble if not extinction.

To survive in today's business climate requires selecting and implementing the right opportunities.

Drucker argued all one can hope to get by solving a problem is to restore normality. All one can hope, at best, is to eliminate a restriction on the capacity of the business to obtain better results from what's already being done.

Take-home message: Constantly struggling with problems in the company, or putting out fires, at the expense of capitalizing on opportunities that have revealed themselves, is a sure-fire sign that the business could be on the verge of losing its distinction and leadership in the marketplace.

When problems are the only thing discussed by management in its regular meetings, the business will inevitably drift from leadership to mediocrity. And mediocre organizations rapidly become marginal, then extinct.

Meetings Should Focus Vision on Opportunity, Not Only Problems

People see what is presented to them; what is not presented tends to be overlooked.

To repeat Drucker's warning: “Most meetings discuss ‘problems;--especially in the areas where performance falls below expectations--which means that managers tend not to see the opportunities. They're simply not being presented with them…

…Of course, problems have to be paid attention to, taken seriously, and tackled... But if they are the only thing that is being discussed, opportunities will die of neglect."

The Practice of Two Meetings

Many organizations, thanks to Drucker, now have two meetings: One meeting to focus on the problems and one to focus on the opportunities. This tactic should be memorized by every reader and discussed with other executives–it could be a game changer!

The opportunity meeting requires diligent preparation to find out what's truly successful–that is, what the organization should be doing to exploit its identified successes.

Focusing attention on opportunities can be integrated into the structure of traditional, routine meetings. But it's sometimes best to conduct two separate meetings.

In Conclusion

The two biggest obstacles to obtaining an opportunity focus in an organization is excessive concern with problems and, given today's business climate, the intimidating factor of fear.

Problems obscure attention to opportunities, because as long as the emphasis was on the comfortable retreat to regular routines concerned with the daily crises, necessary change was postponed or even abandoned.

Drucker insisted in many of his writings that a damage-control policy of giving dominant attention to problems was counterproductive on two counts.

First, problems consume just as much time as opportunities, and second, their solutions only restored normality, but in most cases, failed to provide future new revenue streams that would make the business into a different business for a different future.

A practical tactic for identifying opportunities is to schedule meetings that focus exclusively on identifying very specific opportunities that the organization is capable of capitalizing upon.

This requires knowledgeable executives who truly understand the business for which they are responsible for.

Said Drucker: "One way to do this is to list the opportunities on one page, and then list the organization's performing and capable people on another page. Then one allocates the ablest and most performing people to the top opportunities."

Competently conducting opportunity meetings will bring extraordinary returns – Guaranteed!