Good People, Bad Meetings

Good People, Bad Meetings

By David Pearl

David Pearl is a U.K.-based speaker, consultant, and experience engineer. From Will There Be Donuts?: Better Business One Meeting at a Time (HarperCollins). ©2013

Meetings are bad not because we are bad people. We are good people who have fallen into bad habits.

You don't get poor discipline, lousy communication, catastrophically bad preparation, deep disrespect and profound boredom without adequate practice. It takes time for meetings to get truly awful.

What you need to remember when you are out there trying to change things is that all bad habits had ”good“ reasons once. As illogical as a habit may seem, it usually has a logical foundation. To change a habit you need to understand its rational source, and that may mean returning to the time when it all made perfect sense.

Consider smoking, a habit that many would like to kick. Cigarette packets luridly remind us that smoking is an illogical thing to do. But go back to the time when the average smoker started lighting up and there was a ”good“ reason for it. It was a way to look good, feel good, be accepted, take a risk, show the world your independence from parental control, etc. Part of the therapeutic journey of the ”recovering smoker“ is to recognize that (a} smoking was indeed logical once and (b) that logic has now been outgrown.

Try this with meetings. The procedure that makes no sense to you now was once very sensible. Ask yourself what this procedure intended to achieve. Do we still need to do this? And if so, is there a more efficient way?

A lot of those information-sharing meetings fall under this category. Was this logical once? Certainly, there was a time before email, fax, or even telex when a face-to-face download made a lot of sense. How else would you know what other members of your team or group had been up to? Is this still useful? Yes. But is there a better way of doing it? Yes. Because the technology now exists to share important information outside a meeting, we don't need the meeting any more. If you have CNN, why would you wait to get your news from a town crier who comes to your door with a big bell? The old habit was legitimate. But now, let's move on.

Leadership team meetings at Skandia used to be dominated by information sharing. Today the board circulates detailed information in advance and in the meeting handles only questions arising from the information. The ”sharing“ habit has become a ”diagnostic habit.“ We have moved on.

Remember, we are all to some extent addicted. Assailing us with logic only makes us hide our habits under the bed and in the bath. Much better to admit there is a logic to what we are doing, offer an alternative, and let the addict make the choice.


The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.