Aside

The Too Short Meeting

I’m about to head off to a meeting that I’m sure will be too short.

Too short as in not enough time to actually discuss, deliberate, and resolve conflicts within the many ideas that could be generated. Too short to allow people to feel heard. Too-short to explore nuances. Too short for everyone to “get” the current situation well enough to diagnose root causes. Too short for people to diverge on a point that could be important but we don’t know right now. Too short for these high-powered problem solvers who are getting together to actually solve the problem.

In my last life of consulting, I was typically asked to come in and solve some serious problem – a $100M business was tanking for lack of demand, a $3B product launch had failed catastrophically, or a company was dealing with a major competitive threat and they called when they saw the wolf at the door. As my team and I came in to devise a strategy with them, I found one common truth to all these dire situations.

Beyond the obvious situational crisis, all of them had failed to work on the problem deeply. They talked about the topic of the problem in every meeting, but for 5 minutes each time. They complained about it perpetually, but then never dug deeper into the issue with all the participants. They named it as a “key issue” but never spent time getting into it deeply. They were consumed with what I’ll call “everything else” rather than the big hairy audacious problem that could fundamentally make or break them. And when asked why this was the case, they would always say, “we’re busy over here”.

As Covey would tell us, there is the stuff that can consume our calendar and there is the stuff that matters. To suggest your calendar is being eaten alive by the inane is to suggest you are powerless to set the agenda well.

So, while I believe most meetings suck, I also know there is such a thing as a too-short meeting. It’s when you bring key people together, but don’t use them to think together. You talk at your Board or at your investors to update rather than brainstorm new approaches that might stretch your thinking. It’s when you have a strategic moment in your company history that is truly pivotal but you feel you should only ask for a 2- hour meeting instead of the day you believe is necessary. It is when you say you have “the most strategic issue to discuss” but you don’t even allow enough time to present the ideas let alone deliberate them. All of these reinforce the “AirSandwich” of the business – where the gap left undermines success. It’s the equivalent of short-sheeting the issue. Or getting the ball close to the hole, but never actually in the hole.

The too-short meeting is a way of not actually dealing. As I compare notes with other Board members, CEOs, Investors, we all see examples. I got high-fived the other day by someone as I mentioned my own frustration over the too-short meeting. Too often, we spend our time in the mindless, the routine, and the problems of yesterday … perfecting things that don’t even need to be perfected. But we don’t spend the time rolling up our sleeves on the thing that need to be addressed. Don’t bring people together if you’re not going to use them well. And stop avoiding the real issues.

So yes, kill mtgs, or at least shorten every standard meeting by 50%. Then spend some thinking time and dig in – clear the day or clear 1 day every month and make a long meeting for the things that deserve it. We’ve got a lot of tough issues going on. I wonder how many of the leadership teams involved feel like they are spending time on the right things? Those big, hairy, audacious problems can be solved but first we must first face into them. And then allow enough time to deal with them.

 

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One Response:

  1. deborah nixon. November 23, 2011 at 1:50 am  |  

    Yes I agree that often not enough time is allocated to discuss important issues. But i don’t think longer meetings is the solution because then the group has even more time to avoid confronting the huge challenge. The issue isn’t the length of the meeting; it is in our fear of confronting hard issues. Our fear of asking questions that are hard and the fear of courageously listening. Most people do not have the chutzpah to tell it like it is, to speak the truth, to hang in during what may be a negative reaction, to not run or hide (metaphorically) and to just stay put. To face the scary issue, work it through, and survive it. Longer meetings won’t fix that fear. Learning to trust- others, the process. And a willingness to be vulnerable. Now, fix that and you fix the too short meeting problem.

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