Meeting the Challenge of Challenging Meetings

Here is this month’s piece from Brand Velocity, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that is putting Peter Drucker’s ideas into practice at major corporations.

As long as there have been organizations, there have been meetings. One big difference today, however, is that meetings have become institutionally automated. This has produced more meetings, convened faster, in almost every organization.

Unfortunately, what transpires during all these meetings has not been automated; it remains as inefficient as ever. The result? Employees are saddled with a large number of non-productive gatherings, sucking the life out of people who would otherwise be excited about doing great things in their companies. It’s one reason that 70% of employees are not engaged in their work.

In our experience with large and small companies, there are four differences that we’ve observed with executives who have successfully met the meeting challenge:

1. They manage their own calendars. This is opposed to handing off the task to an assistant or allowing others to inundate their Outlook with appointments. Handling one’s own calendar is nearly unheard of in large organizations. But when it is done, we have found that important work gets tackled in real time, versus needing to call a meeting to make a key decision. Best of all, the executives who take their calendars into their own hands find that they have much more “think time.”

2. They abolish recurring meetings. Unfortunately, bad things often happen with the recurring meeting functions of automated calendaring systems. We have consistently found that recurring meetings fill up people’s time with a merry-go-round of activity that doesn’t produce real results. One warning sign: If you are in meetings more than four hours a day, there is undoubtedly a better way. As Peter Drucker once observed, “One either meets or one works.”

3. They never hold a meeting without a “tradeoff maker.” Meetings that produce important results require tough tradeoffs. Without specifically designating someone in authority to make these tradeoffs, a meeting will too often slip into a perpetual debate that makes very little organizational difference.

4. They systematically focus meetings up-front. We have found that the best executives start every meeting with a round-robin answer to “This meeting will be a success if . . .” while also having each participant address, “What would be different if we didn’t have this meeting?” These questions may sound elementary, but they can be very effective. For “they insist that the purpose be thought through” in advance of a meeting getting underway, Drucker explained. In that way, he added, they help ensure that things don’t “degenerate into a ‘bull session’ in which everyone has bright ideas.”

So, go ahead and ask yourself (but, please, don’t gather your colleagues to consider): How much more engaged would your company’s employees be if you stuck to these four rules?

Jack Bergstrand is the founder of Brand Velocity, author of Reinvent Your Enterprise and creator of the Strategic Profiling tool and Action Planning process. He can be reached at