I used to compare the pain of a weekly 90-minute status meeting to that of a root canal.
But then one day I actually had the dreaded dental procedure, and realized that the comparison is really quite unfair to the root canal.
Meetings are not just a source of tremendous suffering for me, of course, but for millions of professionals all around the world.
And as a meetings effectiveness consultant, one who has worked with dozens of organizations to alleviate this suffering, the question I’ve been obsessed with for over a decade now is why?
Let us review the theories.
Theory 1: Meeting leaders are too lazy busy to craft thoughtful agendas
The reasoning goes like this:
Meetings are highly coordinated events that require careful planning.
Unfortunately, meeting leaders are too busy for that, proponents of this theory argue. So leaders show up wholly unprepared, wing it, and the meeting subsequently descends into disorder.
To be sure, preparing for any event increases the chances it goes smoothly, but I've seen far too many bad meetings that were diligently planned to believe a lack of prep time is the primary driver of the bad meetings epidemic.
Indeed, I've worked with organizations who convene entire "pre-meetings" dedicated to crafting an exhaustively detailed agenda for another primary meeting--and still those primary meetings were abysmal.
Theory 2: Meetings are bad because They're a Way for Managers to Flex Their Power
Call this the Michael Scott theory.
Meetings are unproductive because the leader never called the meeting for productive reasons to begin with, but rather to hear the sound of their own voice, to affirm their identity as someone of stature, of authority.
To be sure, there are plenty of leaders on a serious power trip--I've met them.
But as someone who regularly interviews struggling meeting leaders, I can tell you that the vast majority are perfectly well-intentioned. Their meetings are a genuine attempt to deliver value--even if they don’t' always turn out that way.
Theory 3: Meetings are Bad Because of Distracted, Disengaged Attendees
Bad meetings are the fault of unruly, distracted, disengaged attendees (probably millennials) on their phones, checking their email or Instagram.
Here, I think proponents of this theory have the causality backwards: distracted and disengaged attendees are generally not the cause of bad meetings, but rather a symptom of bad meetings.
Even I, your humble meetings expert, have felt tempted to respond to email during egregiously unproductive meetings, just to feel like the hour has not been entirely wasted.
So if none of these theories hits the mark, then what’s the real cause?
The Real Reason Meetings Are Bad: The Intuitive Meetings Assumption
Psychologists have pointed out that whenever individuals approach problems, they make their way through various problem solving stages. (See pic below).
Mostly, individuals do this via what’s called intuitive problem solving, where instead of moving sequentially from one stage to the next, they jump around sporadically.
More to the point, when using intuitive problem solving, individuals aren’t consciously aware or even in control of these jumps from stage to stage.
Fortunately, none of that matters. Because all they have to do is place their attention on the problem and, much like an automatic car switching gears, our magnificent, intuitive brain does the moving from stage to stage effortlessly for us.
Because of its ease and efficiency, it’s no surprise individuals use intuitive problem solving to tackle all kinds of problems, from picking out a necktie, to working out a difficult mathematical theory.
Indeed, intuitive problem solving works so well for individuals, we naturally assume it’ll work in groups.
All we have to do, we think, is call a meeting to “discuss” a particular problem, have attendees collectively place their attention it, and let our intuitions take over.
Unfortunately, that assumption turns out to be catastrophically wrong.
Intuitive Meetings Keep Attendees Out of Sync
When we call a meeting governed by intuitive problem solving, or what I call an “intuitive meeting,” we virtually guarantee disorder.
Indeed, to collaborate effectively in real time with other individuals, people need to be on the same problem solving stage.
But because intuitions are private, attendees have no way of discerning what problem solving stage each other is on, and unknowingly begin the meeting on different stages.
To illustrate this misalignment, take the example of a software team meeting called to discuss a disgruntled customer, a VIP who recently threatened to jump to a competitor.
Attendees walking into the meeting think they’re focused on the same thing, but they’re not.
One attendee is ready to plan the move forward on what they believe to be the obvious solution.
Another is focused on generating new creative solutions for placating the customer.
While yet another is still hung up on whether or not the exit of this pompous hellion is a problem — or a blessing.
As the meeting progresses, things only get more chaotic as attendees switch problem solving stages, without notifying others, and without themselves even realizing it. Granted, in an individual context this rapid switching might lead to powerful creative breakthroughs, but in a group context it leads to whiplash.
As a result, intuitive meetings feel like disjointed, circular free-for-alls. And in the end, because the meeting never settled into any one of the problem solving stages, no stage was ever thoroughly conquered, leaving attendees feeling like their time was wasted.
So if our usual intuitive problem solving approach keeps attendees out of sync, what if we tried a more methodical one instead?
Methodical Meetings Keep Attendees In Sync
If an intuitive meeting is a session where attendees unconsciously and chaotically jump from various problem solving stages to the next, a methodical meeting is one where we all deliberately concentrate on just one stage at a time.
When the explicit goal of the meeting is to work through just that one stage, something magical happens: members find themselves wonderfully in sync, all rowing in the same direction, far more likely to make progress.
A minute ago, we mentioned a chaotic intuitive meeting convened to discuss an unhappy customer — one that went nowhere.
What might a methodical meetings approach to that same problem look like?
Methodical Meeting Example 1: Define the Problem
What is the ideal outcome for this customer issue? What is the worst thing that will happen if the customer leaves? What is key to making sure he doesn’t?
When the group hones its collective power on answering these kinds of problem-defining questions — before jumping ahead to developing a solution — it can lead to incredibly clarity. And by the end of this meeting, a written problem statement that makes finding the right solution infinitely easier.
Methodical Meeting Example 2: Generate Solutions
The quality of solution you ultimately reach is commensurate with the number of quality alternatives with which you begin.
So what if the software team focused on answering one solution-generating question: what are some creative solutions for making this customer so happy he doesn’t just stay, but refers us five new customers?
If this session led to even one additional idea that met this criteria, the meeting will have been well worth it.
Methodical Meeting Example 3: Make a Plan
If the solution to the customer problem was obvious, then the group could have skipped ahead and focused their collective attention on developing a plan to implement the solution.
For instance, if it’s a new product feature that would make this VIP happy, what actions are necessary to get that feature ready to go? Just as important, who will own those actions, and when will they be due?
Can you imagine how energizing it would be if the group dedicated their entire session to this narrow set of implementation questions, and walked out of the room with a written and well-coordinated project plan?
How to Hold a Methodical Meeting in 3 Steps.
Methodical meetings are shorter, more focused, more enjoyable, and more productive. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in problem solving theory to implement them.
I’ve setup a free resource called MethodicalMeetings.com that makes it easy. Next time you have a meeting, just follow these three steps:
Step 1: Visit MethodicalMeetings.com and pick a worksheet.
Each worksheet represents one problem solving stage. Alongside each worksheet are descriptions that help you determine which is the right one for you.
Step 2: Bring the worksheet to the meeting.
Print out the methodical meeting worksheet and bring it to meeting. Distribute to all attendees.
Step 3: Fill it out with your attendees.
Each worksheet has been carefully designed to walk you through one problem solving stage in the most efficient way possible. No need to spend hours trying to reinvent the wheel, just follow the worksheet. When the worksheet is done, the meeting is over.
Bad meetings are an epidemic. And many of them can be largely explained by a simple, flawed assumption.
We assume that our go-to way of solving problems individually, intuitively, is how we ought to solve problems in groups.
But we’re better off with meetings that focus the group’s attention on just one stage of the problem solving process at a time — methodical meetings.
The methodical meeting approach, I think, is your best hope for alleviating the intolerable pain you experience in bad meetings. And mine too, should I ever have to attend one of yours.