Why business meetings fail

Flickr user Horasis

(MoneyWatch) After General Motors (GM) bought his company EDS in 1984, Ross Perot used to say that one of the things that annoyed him most about serving on the automaker's board was its penchant for forming committees to investigate pressing issues rather than simply making a decision about the best way to proceed.

Not that GM is unique. Many organizations struggle with this aversion to decision-making. Meanwhile, the endless meetings do nothing to improve productivity. They become exercises in "feeding the monster," that is, following processes and procedures that serve the needs of the bureaucracy but not the needs of customers or employees. Many companies compound the damage by holding meetings to discuss future meeting (or "pre-meetings," in corporate-speak).

While there are many reasons to hold meetings, there is one singularly important component that is nevertheless often overlooked -- purpose. Managers hold meetings because that is what is expected of them. Such habits are a principal cause of dysfunction -- failure to clarify the reason for the meeting. Defining the purpose of a meeting is not the same as the setting the agenda; purpose is about why a group meets and what it expects to gain. Two questions arise:

- Why is the team meeting? Often the answer to this question is, "Because we have to." That's not good enough. The team should meet to review progress or update situations. It may also meet to air ideas and deliberate over key decisions. Updates can be done via email. People's time is better spent actually making decisions.

- What is our expected outcome? If you call the meeting, know what you want the outcome to be. This is essential. The reason meetings meander is that the leaders ostensibly running the gathering cede control to anyone who speaks, rather than proceeding a purposeful way.

Without clear answers to the above questions, you can bet the meeting will be a waste of time. It will neither succeed in generating ideas, nor trigger decisions. So forget it.

As much as meetings need to be defined in advance, there is one exception -- the "get-together."

A get-together is an occasion to bring people around a common issue. The objective is to familiarize one another with an issue and to share different perspectives on it. The purpose of the get-together is familiarization, rather than decision-making. While you may consider it a waste of time, its true purpose is inclusiveness. You want to give individuals an opportunity to voice their views.

That may head off disagreements in the future, when people may not agree with a particular course of action. While its common for employees to complain when they're unhappy with a given situation, being given a voice early in the process at least allows them can weigh in with opinions and suggestions.

Meetings can be notorious time-wasters. But when managers prepare in advance, clarify objectives, and set expectations, the meetings can be purposeful and productive.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Horasis