I just got back from speaking at a 500 attendee event on the West Coast. The company referred to it as its annual meeting. Today, I have a discussion scheduled with two people from a small tech startup about collaborating on a project. They’re calling that a meeting too. Strange, because the only thing these two “meetings” have in common is that moniker.
Quibbling over semantics may seem silly, but it’s not. Organizations are drowning in unproductive meetings, and part of the problem is the fact that we refer to them all in the same way. Vague and imprecise language obscures the true purpose of these gatherings, making it difficult to know how to optimize for their success. It also makes it harder to distinguish the worthwhile ones from the worthless.
In order to have fewer, more purposeful meetings, we need a more robust vocabulary to describe them. So let’s do some renaming, starting with three common “meetings” that you’ll soon realize aren’t really meetings at all.
Meetings with just two people aren’t meetings. They’re conversations. Whereas meetings with ample attendee lists need an agenda, plenty of preparation, and a clear articulable purpose, we need not be as rigorous with one-on-one discussions. They’re not weapons of mass interruption and humans are naturally good at them. So keep conversations casual and hold them as often as you’d like.
Another kind of meeting we need to rename is the one in which work actually gets done. Management expert Peter Drucker famously noted that this was impossible: “One either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.” And, for the most part, he’s right. Most meetings involve planning and coordinating the work, not executing it. But sometimes people — writers, programmers, mathematicians — do huddle around a laptop or whiteboard to generate real work product together. Let’s call these group work sessions and make sure to disinvite the bureaucrats.
Then there are meetings where the primary goal is to generate ideas. If you want people to be truly imaginative and express themselves don’t dare call it a brainstorming meeting. Just call it a brainstorm. Since these sessions are designed to maximize creativity, play a warm-up game, get people standing and active, give people permission to have fun, free of judgment and criticism. If someone walks past the conference room and thinks you’re having a “meeting,” you’re probably not doing it right.
Now let’s address a few types of meetings that are difficult to justify if you name them correctly.
Take, for example, those called primarily because managers have information to disseminate. Rather than writing it down in a memo or having several one-on-one conversations, they decide to save time by wasting their colleagues’, disrupting work and corralling the team in a room together. These are convenience meetings and almost always a bad idea. They’re typically convenient for the individual, and inconvenient for everyone else.
Meetings called as a matter of tradition or habit — formality meetings — must also be banned. These gatherings often served a purpose at one time, but that purpose has since been lost. So rather than considering an issue and asking, “Is a meeting the best way to address it?,” we treat the meeting as a given and ask “What issues do we need to address at this meeting?” This ensures we always find things to discuss, no matter how trivial they are.
Some meetings are called under the guise of collaboration or alignment, but it’s really connection we’re after. We can call these social meetings. Connection is a laudable goal, but meetings are a pretty lousy way to foster it. Instead invite people to a team-building activity, retreat, or a party. But make it optional. While the extroverts on the team might love the chance to socialize, the introverts may want to stay home and get some work done.
Finally, we come to the decision-making meeting, a total misnomer as is it implies that the meeting itself is making the decision. But meetings don’t make decisions, leaders do. Group discussions can help support that process, of course, so let’s call them decision-supporting meetings to remind the leader that it’s her job, and hers alone, to make sure action follows. It’s also helpful to distinguish between high-stakes, low-stakes, and no-stakes decision-supporting meetings. In the first type, you want to facilitate a real honest debate. Research shows that moderate task conflict leads to more accurate decisions, so demand candor from attendees and encourage them to disagree. Calling these high-stakes will remind you to let the best decision prevail, even if it’s not yours.
When the decisions to be made are less consequential, the goal isn’t to slow down, it’s to speed up. Propose a plan for moving forward and focus on generating buy-in. Of course you should allow disagreement and be prepared to revise your plan in the face of good reasons. But aim for quick resolution so you can spend most of the time coordinating implementation. As for meetings called to support inconsequential, no-stakes decisions, they should obviously never see the light of day.
Imagine a culture where people regularly talk about meetings using this kind of precise language. Picture someone pushing back on a meeting invitation by calling it a formality meeting. Envision the leader of a decision-supporting meeting asking themselves whether theirs qualifies as high or low stakes. Think about someone canceling an upcoming staff meeting and instead requesting a few conversations instead. Better language isn’t the only step you must take to transform your meeting culture, but it’s a powerful start.