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Okay, enough with the "meetings are toxic" crap


Check out any business advice column, management-oriented self-help book, or Web 2.0 developer's blog these days, and you'll pick up a very pungent vibe: Meetings are toxic.

This is crap. Sure, it makes for a great sound byte, and it hits that reptile-brain aversion we all have to boring meetings, but it's way off the mark. It's effectively management by prejudice, judging all meetings based on the misdeeds of a few mind-numbing confabs.

Meetings aren't toxic. In fact, blaming the concept of meetings because many of your meetings are boring is missing the point. It all goes back to a basic business rule I learned a long time ago:

Process is not a substitute for leadership

When Beth, sMoRTy71 and I brainstorm together, our meetings are often if not always productive, and we all come away with a better, cleaner, smarter idea than any of us working alone. When some of our out-of-town colleagues hit Louisville, a single face-to-face meeting often accomplishes more than a dozen e-mail strings, phone calls, video conferences and instant message ever could, if only because every invested party is in the same room. When it gets down to crunch time on a project, regular, even daily meetings really help avoid miscommunications that can make you miss a deadline. Nobody doubts the effectiveness of meeting in these cases, because the meetings are obviously productive (that's not to say always pleasant, but that's a separate issue).

So where does this "meetings are toxic" crap come from? It comes from people trying to use a process to avoid having to actually lead. I can think of two obvious examples that everyone has probably suffered through:

Example #1: Somebody sends out a weekly status report. Nobody reads the status report. Manager gets upset that nobody reads the status report, so he or she schedules a weekly meeting where everybody goes over the status report. These meetings are boring, accomplish little, and make everybody hate the idea of meetings. What went wrong? The manager never asked why nobody is reading the status report. If the report isn't helping people do their jobs, why is it being written. If the report could help, but nobody reads it anyway, it's the manager's job to address the underperformance, not schedule a meeting to force-feed the data. That is using a meeting as a substitute for leadership.

Example #2: A key business process requires that someone make a decision, choosing one priority over another. The manager doesn't know what to do, doesn't have a clear vision for the product or process, and certainly doesn't want to be held repsonsible for making the wrong choice. So what does he or she do? Call a meeting of all involved parties to "get buy-in" where everyone grinds their personal axes until either A) the decision is postponed while we "study the issue" or B) everyone argues until tired and then resigns themselves to a course of action, so that if it's the wrong one, everyone is to blame, and thus no one is to blame. This meeting becomes a regular feature of the business week, as business priorities must always be set. This same breed of meeting can be used to "brainstorm new ideas" rather than choose between them, but the same process holds true. These meetings are boring, accomplish little, and make everybody hate the idea of meetings. What went wrong? That is using a meeting as a substitute for leadership.

There are, of course, many more wasteful breeds of meetings than those listed here, but there are also many useful meetings that do exist. You shouldn't indict all meetings just because several people have misused them in the past. Meetings aren't necessarily toxic. Lack of leadership is toxic. Killing all meetings because your leadership is bad is just converting one form of bad leadership into another.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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