Sunday, September 30, 2007

No new sunday reading: preparing for a meeting which is itself preparation for a meeting

Which made me think about the intense focus on meetings in business culture.

Almost everyone has strong feelings about them. You can find a dozen articles online about how to have a good or bad meeting. Check it out: Here's one from Inc magazine. Here's one from a consultant. Here's a free 24 page down-loadable manual! But almost any one will do. They all say about the same thing: have an agenda and a purpose and a schedule, end on time, or even early. Establish next steps before you leave. Not that this isn't good advice but it's the kind of advice that makes me think that business people aren't human, or forget their human instincts when they enter an office. How often do we need to be reminded not to bore people. Maybe a lot. But none of these articles talk about why meetings are so important and frequent in the first place.

I don't think there's any question that meetings are the core event in business culture. "Good meeting?" we ask as our colleagues as they walk back into the office, knowing that the answer may well reveal the fate of the relationship. Is it moving in a positive or negative direction? Or moving at all? "Great meeting," they'll say. "Or good but strange meeting." That's usually a bad meeting.

In marketing, we often turn the meeting into a show, or if we think a big show will suggest a lack of seriousness or misplaced priorities, we shoot for an anti-show. "We could have done x or y," we say, "but for this meeting we thought we'd just make it a conversation." "A conversation" is a kind of meeting. But the word is conversation is supposed to suggest a degree of informality that escape the semi-formal decorum--however undefined--of a meeting. This still counts but were not going to say it counts, unless you really like it.

There's nothing wrong meetings, per se. Unless you have too many of them. Or they are substitutes for action. I seem to recall that Bill Ford got so tired with his company's endless meetings that they instituted a new policy limiting meetings. (Here's a note on the subject in Jalopnik). I supposed you could create a whole taxonomy of bad meetings: the endless meeting, the lecture disguised as a meeting, the group-therapy meeting. And so on.

One thing meetings are supposed to do is establish chemistry or the lack thereof between potential business partners. But it seems that too many meetings do nothing but that. The conclusion is: , "I understand you;" "you understand me." Maybe that's okay.

Which is a very long-winded section to ask the same question again: Why are meetings so important? I'm not sure. Maybe it's because business decisions are so collaborative, involving so many people and so many steps that you have to constantly get people together.

Maybe, and this is a big maybe it's because business decisions are so hard to make. This a point I've made in other posts. Marketing decisions are even harder. They are such high stakes, with so much anxiety, with so little certainty, that you almost have to create an atmosphere or energy-level or experience where it's possible to actually feel good about making a decision. Is the point of a meeting--at least an external meeting--to create an environment where people are inspired to act. Is

My working definition, which is rooted maybe paradoxically in classroom experience is this: good meetings advance the conversation. New facts or opinions are introduced, new objections are raised and reconciled. Bad meetings simply restate the facts in a new way. If all we want to do is establish chemistry, let's go out to dinner. Or argue about our favorite movies.

So what's the best thing that can happen on Monday? Someone challenges my current material in a way that leads to a new conclusion, a new idea, a new resolution of seemingly unresolvable contradictions. That would be a good meeting. Or at least an interesting one.

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