Within the corporate landscape there are many potential diversions, pitfalls and distractions hindering progress. None more so than the dreaded 9am weekly update meeting, the attendance of which is inevitably mandatory, despite the limited exchange of information and knowledge that takes place, and despite the complete lack of productivity for the invariably large team of expensive professionals boring each other senseless.
It’s little wonder that we see open laptops, and tablets during these meetings as only one or two (well, very few) individuals are engaged with the content at any one time.
The larger the team, the more painstaking it becomes, especially with a multi-national or geographically dispersed team, and leaders are left simply *telling* their staff to ‘communicate better’ without providing the channels to communicate within. It’s like asking someone to get a train every day to the Isle of Skye from somewhere in Norfolk – the infrastructure simply isn’t there.
So we resort to update meetings, because at least then everyone has had their say, right? And we know that we have covered all areas and not missed any important information from anyone. Really?
We conveniently forget that people choose what they want to tell us in these meetings, or that they might simply have forgotten something which is important to one stakeholder, but not very important for anyone else, including themselves.
Framing the Problem
This post submits that not only is this meeting format flawed, but that the entire genre of ‘Update Meeting’ is now (or at least should be) obsolete due to the emergence of enhanced information and collaboration systems. That’s not to say that all meetings are a waste of time – just those where the information transfer is limited to status updates. To frame the problem: with the increasing complexity of team-working across functional and geographic boundaries in larger companies, the requirement to keep abreast of activities eventually grinds productivity to a glacial crawl.
A solution to the problem seems at first glance obvious – just use the technology we have available to us. Simple, right…? This would free up time for ‘doing’, and cause less frustration among teams who ‘just want to get on with their job’. If we could choose the information that we wanted to have access to, instead of having to sit through all the information, we’d be much more productive. However, ‘Update Meeting’ proliferation is compounded by the abundant and divergent nature of email and social technologies, such as Twitter and blogging (the irony is not lost here). In order to stay in tune with what’s going on, we need a convergent approach to meetings via convergent technologies: PULL and not PUSH dissemination of information is required.
Are there any large, multinationals who have found a solution? The Economist ran an article on the Honeywell case study, where employees were given a set of 12 behaviours by their new CEO, David Cote. Amongst these was the instruction to only hold meetings between quarter past and half past the hour. The clocks had green quartiles painted on them to represent the allowable meeting slots. Whilst a meeting in every slot might seem excessive, actually having 3/4 of a working week free to be productive contributed to the company turning their business around. Managers were asked to spend 50% of their time with customers, and each and every employee asked to contribute towards their collective continuous improvement. There were three enablers in Cote’s plan: Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing and Digital Works: corporate-wide digital initiatives to increase productivity and information flow.
The Honeywell case and other organisations such as large consultancies are proof that using technology can increase productivity, but many (if not most) large, multi-nationals appear to slow themselves down by the sheer size of operation, and still do not make full use of tools they have available to them. Honeywell had upwards of 114,000 employees, but if it were easy to do, then more companies would adopt this approach far more readily and successfully.
Explanations and Barriers
Some of the barriers to doing so could be the following:
- Lack of confidence in information contained in reports and systems;
- Learning styles of leaders needing to take in information via meeting;
- Different generations – some of our Leaders today are still adapting;
- Fear of loss of control – liking the security of the meeting;
- Cost management – not wanting to spend on IT, and not seeing the benefits;
- Different approaches to BPR with technology leading to lack of progress.
(See an HBR Blog on Why we Secretly Love Meetings.)
All of the above are potential show-stoppers for a budding change agent and none of them is uncommon, but if they can be overcome, then we stand a chance of increasing productivity in our organisations. We could manage by exception instead of trying to keep up with every detail.
Dissatisfaction with update meetings is a symptom of the sweeping change which technology innovation is having upon the business environment. The fact that we see trends where business are facing challenges with BPR, data warehousing, systems integration and knowledge management is further proof of the same. Mr Porter was right – the primary and secondary activities of a business will (at least) contribute to its sustainable strategic advantage – these activities can only be done efficiently with good information flow and knowledge management.
Companies who find a way to overcome the not insignificant hurdles, and start to use convergent and collaborative technologies effectively, will find themselves able to react much quicker than their warm and fuzzy counterparts. These companies will be more likely to be able to make decisions quicker and make changes quicker as the communication channels will be clearer, and communication of updates will become the responsibility of the receiver and not the giver. People will inform themselves at a time of their choosing, which will help them plan their day better, allowing them to be more reactive and more productive.
Death to the ‘Update Meeting’!
Related Quotes and Information
“Maybe meetings have become a life-form capable of calling themselves and reproducing via human hosts.”– Scott Adams, in a 2001 “Dilbert” comic strip.
“Purgatory is a meeting that goes off on a tangent. Hell is a meeting that ends there.” –Jack Pitney