How to Avoid Bad Meetings Forever
Today we welcome back regular guestblogger Dave Baldwin to Write from the Inside Out. Dave discusses the book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli. Meetings don’t have to be like a page from Dilbert–they CAN be effective if they are conducted for the right purpose. Read on!
In this short (82-page) volume, Al Pittampalli takes a close look at the impact of meetings on our ability to do our best work. If you have read my past guest posts, you probably know that when I read books like this, I always look for any clues or insight into how the material can help an artist or creative professional generate income from doing what he or she does best. Brilliance, talent, and hard work do not guarantee revenue or profitability. There are many highly-skilled creative people who, year after year, struggle to eek out a meager living while less-talented people seem to make exponentially more money. Pittampalli gives us one more piece of the puzzle by urging us to question how and why we conduct meetings.
I wish I had read this book in 2007, when I first stepped out of the traditional workforce. I believe that learning how to use meetings the way Pittampalli recommends—as a tool to support decisions after we make them—is critical for getting out of the “starving artist” stage. Equally important is developing the discernment to identify which meetings not to attend at all. We are bombarded with e-mail invitations for after-hours mixers, networking groups, and one-on-one coffee meetings. While no one succeeds in business by hiding from the world, it’s easy to spend all day attending meetings without making any real progress. It’s also easy to hand out lots of business cards and shake plenty of hands, but this activity doesn’t necessarily translate into revenue.
The most uplifting aspect of Pittampalli’s work, in my view, was the concept of a “culture of brainstorming.” Pittampalli says that this type of culture serves as the bedrock for meetings that work. I have had a lot of experience with brainstorming, and I’ve learned that it’s not so much about generating ideas. Brainstorming is about getting a group of people into a focused and creative state of mind. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a culture where people are in this type of accelerative problem-solving state most of the time. I believe that creating this type of culture is possible—if we challenge ourselves to re-examine the way we interact.
Pittampalli writes about meetings from the perspective of a traditional 9-5 office environment. It’s been years since I’ve worked in that type of world, but I found the book to be equally relevant nonetheless. Those of us who are accustomed to working independently don’t need to worry that a boss will call us into the conference room and demand that we drop everything to attend a pointless meeting. Entrepreneurs have to contend with a daily onslaught of distractions and the challenges that go along with having to be 100% responsible for generating sales and delivering a service. In an entrepreneurial environment, good meetings can be a saving grace—and bad meetings can be deadly.
To put this challenge in its proper context, it’s important to remember that being an entrepreneur is terrifying by nature. It’s somewhat like having to go out and get a job every single day, knowing that the next day, you’ll have to start all over again. Bearing that in mind, meetings can be tempting. It feels good to be around other people. It feels safer to be a member of a group or a tribe. But sometimes, the illusion of safety can create more danger. Time is money, and an entrepreneur can’t afford to waste time. That’s why we have to learn to elevate our personal discipline when it comes to meetings.
Pittampalli says that there are two fundamental problems with “traditional” meetings: that they “create a culture of compromise,” and that they “kill our sense of urgency.” He goes on to say that most meetings are called for the wrong reasons, such as to disseminate information that could just as easily have been sent out an in e-mail. He correctly points out that meetings are often used to avoid making decisions. I have used business networking groups to do just that. On the days when I was unwilling to face the real challenges necessary to impact my business, I would err on the side of attending more meetings. My rationale: meeting people and collecting business cards would surely move me toward success.
On the flip side of the equation, I can remember a number of high-quality meetings where we all experienced a nearly-magical effect. These meetings were rare enough to count on one hand, but I can remember several distinct elements. There was a genuine sense of camaraderie as well as an element of urgency. The people sitting around the table genuinely cared about really solving a problem, and everyone took equal ownership of it. Having a team to support you is a great thing—but it’s not always easy to make it happen. However, Pittampalli’s book gave me insight into the type of practices that just might make it possible to produce this effect more regularly.
If I had to boil the book down to one single take-away, it would be this: make time for more genuine one-on-one conversations. We have a tendency to get lazy about interacting with people. A meeting offers the convenience of bringing everyone together at one time, but is efficiency really the top consideration when it comes to human interaction? I say no, and I’ll wager that Pittampalli would agree.
Meetings could be a sacred space to create pristine quality interaction. We’ve managed to degrade them into obligatory habits, but there’s still time to reverse the trend.
What’s your definition of an effective meeting? As a writer, what kind of meetings work best for you?