I’ve had several conversations lately revolving around productivity in meetings. In one, a friend described his dissatisfaction with his company’s awaydays. The days were ok, but nothing seemed to happen as a result. The fear of meetings not achieving anything – or not achieving what one or two people define as the optimal result – runs fairly deep in organisations.
Often, I think the efforts to make meetings productive are actually the cause of the problem. To exclude the risk of failure, a number of boxes get ticked, and action points appear to be agreed. A pleasingly large collection of post-it notes and flip charts are produced. And then not much happens. That’s because people are only half-heartedly agreeing to all these actions in order to pass the test of making the meeting productive.
And I’m sorry, the tactic of really eyeballing people on their commitments doesn’t work well either.
There are no universal solutions, but I often encourage people to get less attached to instant results and more interested in the quality of conversation. And if the fact that meetings aren’t productive is really a big issue, then perhaps what’s needed is a more honest and reflective conversation about why that keeps happening.
This relates to the theme of obliquity, elegantly explored by John Kay here:
Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.
The conversations that might lead to oblique productivity are too often dismissed as rambling.
What also gets lost in this is the value of space for reflection. Reflective types tend to get squeezed out by those who prefer lots of stimulation, so days get packed with often-frenzied activities. These aren’t designed to make reflective participants close down, but it’s often the effect. The result is meetings on a kind of sugar rush or caffeine high. They appear to some to have a great, buzzy atmosphere… but their longer term effect is to drain people of energy and disconnect them from reality. Which is why they disappoint when we look back on their effects.
What I aim for in my work is to encourage more space in meetings for the unexpected and for reflection as well as stimulation. I think if organisations aren’t willing to risk a certain amount of boredom or emptiness, they may never really get serious creativity in meetings.