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What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending

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What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending I rely on Google Calendar to tell me where I am supposed to be, when and with whom. When the service collapsed for an afternoon last month, it felt like a teachable moment. For a few seconds, I panicked. Then, I realised that with all the meetings gone, I was free to do some real work. I know I’m not the only person who loves to hate meetings. Will There Be Donuts?, a book by David Pearl, skewers the “Wagner meeting” (of epic length), the “mushroom meeting” (appears suddenly, multiplies rapidly) and the “Stonehenge meeting” (it’s been a fixture for ages but nobody knows why). Yet Mr Pearl also acknowledges that ineffectual meetings often suit us. Boring meetings make us feel interesting by comparison.

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What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending

What we get wrong about meetings – and how to make them worth attending

I rely on Google Calendar to tell me where I am supposed to be, when and with whom. When the service collapsed for an afternoon last month, it felt like a teachable moment. For a few seconds, I panicked. Then, I realised that with all the meetings gone, I was free to do some real work.

I know I’m not the only person who loves to hate meetings. Will There Be Donuts?, a book by David Pearl, skewers the “Wagner meeting” (of epic length), the “mushroom meeting” (appears suddenly, multiplies rapidly) and the “Stonehenge meeting” (it’s been a fixture for ages but nobody knows why).

Yet Mr Pearl also acknowledges that ineffectual meetings often suit us. Boring meetings make us feel interesting by comparison. Long meetings pass the time. Indecisive meetings postpone painful choices.

Meetings frustrate when they reveal painful disparities in power. For subordinates, meetings are often the things that get in the way of doing their job. For the person with the power — the manager — meetings are the job. The manager can even offload the scheduling on to her secretary. No wonder some staff feel resentful of meetings while their managers are oblivious.

That said, the relentless democracy of a meeting where everybody must be heard is a kind of torture in its own right. Never-ending consultations are a good way to ensure that nothing ever happens and nobody has to take responsibility. Oscar Wilde never said that socialism “would take too many evenings” but if he’d met UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, he surely would have.

Some meetings are to transfer information, some to allow discussion and some to reach a decision or resolve a problem. There are committee meetings that exist to satisfy some rule or regulation. I am on such a committee, and find it useful as a reminder not to sign up for any other committees. Then there are the meetings that exist purely for the sake of meeting. Don’t dismiss them; there’s nothing wrong with consenting adults enjoying a coffee break together. There doesn’t always need to be a reason.

But nothing undermines a meeting more than a lack of agreement as to why it’s happening. I know a school that invites parents in for curriculum meetings. The teachers think they’re explaining their approach to the parents; the parents are under the misapprehension they’re being asked for their input. Nobody goes away happy.

Yet despite all the well-justified complaints, there are many situations in which there’s simply no substitute for a meeting. For quickly co-ordinating a shared task, it’s perfect. A few minutes is often sufficient. “Agile” working methods call for a “scrum” in which team members briskly report what they did yesterday, what they’re going to do today and if there’s anything stopping them. A newspaper’s morning editorial conference serves a similar purpose, without the funky terminology.

Or perhaps the meeting is a workshop designed to produce ideas. Some people will assert that meetings are creativity killers, and “a camel is a horse designed by committee”. But this is absurd. We’ve all been in conversations where one idea sparks another. And while an individual can write a novel or paint a portrait, solo creativity is no way to produce nuclear fusion or a new antibiotic. In a world full of specialists, complex projects require collaboration. Meetings can and do generate ideas that no individual could have conceived alone. They do not do so automatically, however.

A persistent myth is that “brainstorming” — the unfiltered, no-wrong-answers, bellowing out of ideas — is a reliable route to innovative brilliance. Psychologist Keith Sawyer, the author of Group Genius, points out that there are many reasons to doubt this. In brainstorming, individuals distract each other, groups fixate on particular topics and some people use the opportunity to stop thinking entirely. Twelve people generate more ideas if they work separately than if they brainstorm together.

The meeting serves a far more important creative purpose when it is time to criticise, evaluate and combine those ideas. Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC Berkeley and author of In Defense of Troublemakers, has found that groups come up with more ideas — and, importantly, better ideas — when they are invited to debate and dissent. It may even be worth breaking the meeting into subgroups with the express purpose of developing competing ideas. “Do not criticise” is a handy rule for new grandparents; it’s not a good approach for innovators.

In a daily scrum, everyone arrives with a brisk update and leaves with a crisp to-do list. In a creative workshop, everyone arrives with a boxful of ideas, ready to discard some and weave the rest together. There’s a big difference between the two types of meeting, but there’s also a clear common thread: people come prepared, have a reason to work together and finish the meeting with a clear sense of what comes next. A good meeting is a good meeting less because of what happens at the time, but because of what came before — and most importantly, what comes after.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 26 July 2019.

My book Messy has more on the joys of creative tension. Feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

Tim Harford
Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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