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Why meetings are rubbish (and how to make them better)

We all hate meetings. They go on too long and achieve too little. This is not news. But there is a better way, and it’s completely within our grasp.

There are essentially two types of meeting. The regular update (does what it says on the tin) and the ad-hoc gathering. The latter is usually convened to address a specific problem, decision or opportunity that needs a breadth of expertise and debate - we’ve got a new brief / the client has halved the budget / we need to decide on a course of action.

Regular update meetings, when kept concise and relevant, serve a purpose in keeping a wider team informed. But it’s the ad-hoc, let’s-get-together-and-make-progress-meetings that should make the biggest difference to a business. They’re also the ones that tend to achieve the least, go on too long, end in uncertainty and spawn endless follow ups. Here’s why:

Often when we’re invited to a meeting, we have little context of the full purpose, other than a vague title- ‘Q4 development plans’, ‘pitch opportunity’, ‘strategy discussion’. At best, there may be an agenda provided in advance that gives a little more meat to the bones, but this too is often scant on detail.

We are then presented with an issue, or opportunity, or challenge, or decision, and expected to instantly contribute our best, most informed thinking. This leads to the familiar experience of round-the-houses conversation, tangents, fuzzy thinking and uncertain outcomes.

While some people are comfortable with putting forward their first thoughts and gut reactions, others require more time for thoughts to percolate before making (often well-reasoned) proposals. Whichever of these personality types you identify with, it’s inevitably the case that our best thinking comes after sufficient processing time. Gathering a group of people together to watch them battle out-loud with a problem they’re just getting their heads around does not make for positive outcomes or efficient use of time.

We can improve this with a really simple change. Whenever a meeting invitation is sent out, it should be accompanied by a pre-read detailing the issue to be discussed. This allows time to think. Time to ask questions. Time to research and ponder. The resulting meeting is no longer a talking shop of loosely formed thoughts. Instead, you can cut to the chase - what does everyone think? The conversation is immediately more informed, purposeful and considered, and there’s less chance of a decision being made only for someone to come back with a freshly considered perspective 24 hours later.

As with most things, Philosophy provides a good model for this idea. Philosophy is precisely the discipline of thinking in depth about ideas and problems, and producing well considered, researched, reasoned responses. As a student of Philosophy at university, this caused much consternation amongst my friends at exam times.

Like making a good collective decision in a meeting, good philosophy cannot be done by springing new ideas on people and asking for an immediate response. This makes exams tricky for philosophy departments. The solution on my course was to release the exam questions two weeks in advance, much like our recommendations for meetings. While this was understandably galling to my law and business-studying housemates who had a whole syllabus to revise, it meant the real work of the philosophy exam happened over a two week preparatory period, with the final exam being an opportunity to set down everything we’d learnt, thought and settled upon.

So make your meetings more like a philosophy exam. Do your thinking and research in advance and reap the benefits of better ideas, punchier discussions and stronger outcomes.


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