meetings, bloody meetings

My introduction to organizing meetings was in the military, where different types of meetings had standard structures. The Orders Format was something any officer could recite from memory. During officer training we were shown the 1976 John Cleese film, which was updated in 1993 — Meetings, Bloody Meetings. Cleese, a manager, is convicted in a dream of the following:

  1. Chairing without due thought & preparation.
  2. Failure to signal your intentions for the meeting.
  3. Negligent ordering of the agenda & criminal misallocation of time.
  4. Not being in full control of the discussion.

In conversations with friends and colleagues in many organizations over the years, it seems that not much has changed since the 1970’s. Now we can add in the standard conference call scenario of constant interruptions as people check in after the meeting has started and the chair starts all over again.

Knowledge Flow

Here was my observation after a day of meetings in 2008 — two meetings in one day. One was traditional. Use the telephone, get everyone on the same page through lengthy discussions, follow up with e-mail, work several iterations, many phone calls and lots more email. No one used social media in their work flow. I was getting paid for this work. Conference call lasted almost three hours. The other meeting was between three bloggers, all who read each other’s writing and understood their perspectives. The idea was to try a new initiative and see what happens. We invested some time but no money. We initiated our first discussion on a collaborative web document. Got going right away. Conference call lasted one hour. Which meeting was successful? Which got me more excited?

Two types of behaviours are necessary for knowledge flow in the network era workplace — collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary. Cooperation differs from collaboration in that it is sharing freely without any expectation of reciprocation or reward.

Collaboration is working together for a common objective, often externally directed by management or a client. Collaboration includes — Coordinating tasks 
with minimal time & effort, Finding people best suited to solve a problem, and Participating in meetings for maximum impact & minimum wasted effort.

If we cannot collaborate well we often cannot find the time to cooperate, which is where we can gain insights for innovation.

Having well-run meetings makes for the better use of everyone’s time and opens time and space for learning.

When to have a Meeting

An interesting approach to meetings is put forward by Atlassian in a post on running effective meetings. This article provides lots of tips and concludes — “focus your energy on the real ingredients that make for effective meetings: purpose, engagement, safety, and results.” The flowchart on whether to schedule a meeting is worth putting up in every manager’s office.

A much more detailed approach to conducting meetings is based on the observations and conclusions in the book, Reinventing Organizations. The related Meetings Wiki provides good guidelines from several companies. I don’t agree with the colour-coded maturity model provided, but there are still good examples that we can learn from here.

A variety of meeting formats for different purposes

Examples include:

When you look at the seven facets for organizational knowledge flow, conducting more efficient and effective meetings is probably the easiest facet to improve. We know how to run meetings better. Everyone should understand the principles behind each type of meeting. Just these few cited sources can provide a framework for having better meetings. The challenge is in adhering to core principles. Everyone should know just how much a meeting costs.


This meeting checklist asks questions to help you decide if you need to call a meeting [my suggestions added].

  1. Is the matter urgent or time-sensitive? If so, no meeting
  2. Am I looking for ideas, discussion, and debate, or am I looking for collaboration, feedback or deliverables? May be able to use channels other than a meeting.
  3. Who is the designated responsible individual for the task I’m hoping to accomplish? If not you, don’t call a meeting. If you, do your homework.
  4. If I need help brainstorming, how many ideas do we need? Probably not a meeting.
  5. Are we meeting about an idea or project that has not been discussed or kicked off yet? It may be useful to have a meeting but consider alternatives.
  6. What’s my ideal outcome? Have a clear goal and then decide if a meeting is the best way to achieve it.
  7. If this is a recurring meeting, how often are status reports needed to be successful? It’s always good to question what these achieve.
  8. Is everyone I plan to invite necessary? Some people may just need the agenda and the minutes.
  9. Can the meeting take place using a video call? Make sure attendees are familiar with the technology.
  10. How long should this meeting be? Shorter is better.
  11. Does the meeting have a clear agenda? You don’t want to be put on trial, like John Cleese, for “failure to signal your intentions for the meeting”.

If you finally decide to call a meeting, here is a handy checklist from HBR (2015).

Spending less time in meetings leaves more time for learning

According to Andries De Grip in a 2015 IZA World of Labor report, “The extent to which workers learn at work is highly correlated with their job tasks (Figure 2). Workers learn particularly from engaging in new and challenging activities and from cooperating with more experienced colleagues.” We may learn at meetings but we can learn more outside meetings.
learning at work

Subsequent Posts on Meetings

Liberating Meetings

More on Meetings

Distributed Liberating Meetings

Zoom is not the problem — meetings are

3 Responses to “meetings, bloody meetings”

  1. Terry Yelmene

    IMHO, the challenge to the value of organizational meetings described here, as well as the prescribed practices validating and increasing the value of meetings, should be taught day 1 in every business course in every business school in the world.

    • Harold Jarche

      Managing meetings properly and only when necessary really is the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in organizational effectiveness


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