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Rule #6: “Most meetings contain a very high % of “Mental Masturbation” which can be significantly reduced by the chair creating and following and agenda”

Rule #6: “Most meetings contain a very high % of “Mental Masturbation” which can be significantly reduced by the chair creating and following and agenda”

For 25 years peers, bosses, subordinates and my wife have tried to convince me to eliminate the term “mental masturbation” from my vocabulary. I continue to use it not for the shock value but because it so perfectly captures the concept of performing an act that may give you pleasure at the time but has no real benefit and ultimately leaves you feeling unfulfilled. So often meetings exactly fit that description-attendees talk at length and only later realize that nothing was accomplished, no decisions reached, no greater understanding developed, no perceptions changed. Many (dare I say most) meetings are a waste of time and only after the fact does one recognize and resent the imposition on your time.

There are many types of meetings from daily “production” to annual “gathering of the tribe”. Short “production” meetings where everyone understands the purpose and needs the information being shared are usually effective (e.g. manager explains how staff will be dispersed to address workload). However even in these types of meetings the manager needs to be careful that his/her desire to build morale (how are the kids?) does not result in extend meetings (hail hardy fellow well met).

Staff meetings are however the worst offender in terms of wasted time. Most managers see the need to meet with subordinates as a group on a regular basis to share information, receive feedback, solicit input on decisions, and build group consistency/morale. Depending on the geographic dispersion of the group, the cost can be very high and decision makers should weigh carefully the expected benefits against the associated costs. Certainly video conferencing has replaced some of the cost but there remains the accepted view that face-to-face meetings are intrinsically more valuable.

All to often meetings (particularly the quarterly, semi-annual, or annual) in large geographically dispersed organizations, follow this trail of logic: “We haven’t gotten everyone together in quite awhile, we have a lot of “stuff” to discuss, and we all know the value of the after hours discussions”. Eventually approval is received and the
Rule #6: “Most meetings contain a very high % of “Mental Masturbation” which can be significantly reduced by the chair creating and following and agenda”

meeting is scheduled. Unfortunately the agenda is created after the decision is reached to have the meeting.
Additionally, all to often the agenda evolves from individuals or organizational components being given a time slot either because they demand or are seen as deserving the opportunity. My own experience is that 2-3 day meetings are often consumed by 3-4 levels of management “waxing philosophic”, support organizations blathering about whatever current issue is up most in their minds (“here is the list of mandatory training which must be accomplished by the end of the year, here is the latest pronouncement on computer security”), all of which could be handled as effectively and far more economically by a simple memorandum (of course you will also get the memorandum back at the office). The meting will also have multiple breakout sections to discuss issues facing the organization. Breakout groups are seen as an effective way to break up a multi day conference/meeting so it is not seen as merely “talking heads”. People do respond well to breakout groups and usually some care is taken to capture the ideas on flip charts to report back to the larger group. The problem is that rarely is a decision reached or anything changed by this activity but everyone feels good (in the short run) because they got to participate.

Effective meetings start by asking the simple question “what do we want to accomplish?” The next question to be answered is “does the value justify the cost, including taking people away from their normal duties?” If these questions are answered affirmatively, then the meeting agenda should be created. Each item on the agenda and the desired outcome should be clearly articulated. If the desired outcome in all cases is to share information, rethink the need for the meeting! The agenda drives the allocation of time between topics and the overall length of the meeting. The participants should be provided an agenda in advance (they may want to solicit input from peers and subordinates) and they should understand the desired outcome (are we going to reach a decision or just talk). Participants value closure and their perception of the effectiveness of a meeting will rise exponentially if decisions are reached even if their view does not carry the day. During the meeting the leader needs to remind the group of the purpose of the topic and intended outcome, while continually drawing the group back when it starts to stray off the point. The leader needs to maintain sufficient clock discipline to keep the meeting on schedule yet exercise sufficient judgment/flexibility so as not to cut off valuable and necessary dialogue. Effective meetings are hard work but the alternative is to waste precious resources and frustrate participants.

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Emma Dozier

Couldn’t agree with you more. I thought it was only in school that our group meetings were so freakin unproductive, but I’ve come to learn that people struggle with non-strategic communications their entire life. Let’s change it for sure!

Victoria A. Runkle

I totally agree. Having stated that, I have found that if we “drop” meetings for awhile, folks interpret that as “we don’t connect” or something. We begin to have odd personnel issues. Yes, we rotate the “chair,” we always have an agenda and we are implementing reports on training folks attended. I think most of the things we do at staff meetings can be handled by emails — but some people want that moment of opportunity to talk. Communicate, communicate and communicate.. in ways people need it… not you, but them. I continue to give this great thought.