The Key to Leading a Bad Meeting image

The Key to Leading a Bad Meeting

Few things in modern life are more frustrating than sitting in a meeting that, for whatever reason, has lost focus. We've all been there. Everybody knows what the topic is, but nobody is quite sure what the point is. Everyone knows how the conversation started, but no one can imagine how or when it will finish. People pitch in, not because they have anything especially insightful to say, but because they are a) eager to show that they know something about the subject, or b) bored with sitting there in silence listening to those who are a). The meeting becomes a list of collated musings, with no particular focus or destination, and no end in sight. The result is thoroughly exasperating.

Whenever I am in such a meeting—and, as you can probably tell, I am writing this from within one—my mind turns to three different individuals who, between them, highlight the essence of a good (and a bad) meeting. The first is Benjamin Disraeli, who reportedly said of William Gladstone: “He was never quite sure what he wanted to say, so he was never quite sure whether he had finished saying it.” The second is Sam Waterston in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, who spends an entire episode (arguably the funniest one) repeatedly asking Jane Fonda, in tones of increasing frustration, “I’m sorry, but what the **** is this meeting about?” Both comments exemplify what bad orators and bad meetings have in common: a lack of clarity about exactly what the debate, or meeting, is trying to achieve.

The third is an almost entirely unknown strategy consultant named Richard McKenzie. He was my project manager when I was twenty-two, and he began every single meeting, no matter how long or short it was (and no matter how senior or junior the personnel) by saying, “Right, the aim of this meeting is ...” and then crisply summarising it in one sentence. As junior consultants, we could almost lip sync the phrase. But the result was that you never ended up in a meeting with him without knowing what it was trying to decide. And the result of that was that you always knew when someone was waffling, when a discussion was irrelevant, when a discussion was vital, and when you were done.

But here’s the oddity: lots of people who lead meetings think they have done this, when in fact they haven’t. And the chief culprit, I think, is the agenda. Agendas typically contain headings that are not formulated in terms of questions, or decisions, but merely topics. Item one: the challenge of Brexit for widget manufacturers. Item two: the Von Hottentot Report. Item three: the year ahead. Richard McKenzie would never allow anything so vague. “The aim of this meeting is to decide whether we should suspend trading in our British widget-making operation.” “The aim of this meeting is to agree which of Von Hottentot’s five recommendations we are going to accept.” “The aim of this meeting is to summarise in one sentence our vision for 2017.” Or whatever.

No doubt there are many other things that can make meetings faster, more efficient and more interesting. Switching formats. Standing only meetings. Limiting discussion to X minutes per topic. Inviting the smallest possible number of people. “Speed dating” style meetings. But these format adaptations are only useful when the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone at the outset: “the aim of this meeting is ...” Otherwise, whether they say it or not—and Christians often won’t—there will be a whole load of disengaged people sitting in a circle, glancing at watches or smartphones continually, and fighting a losing battle against the desire to expostulate, “I’m sorry, but what the **** is this meeting about?”

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