Meetings, Meetings, Meetings... Try One-on-One’s Instead
By Tom Dossenbach
Communication through personal interaction within our companies is more important today than at any time in the past. This is necessitated by the fast pace of the industry and the rapid changes taking place. There are many ways individuals choose to exchange ideas with associates. One of the oldest is through the use of group meetings. (Note: unless otherwise clarified, I will refer to meetings as group meetings of three or more.)
I have attended countless meetings over the past 35 years of my career — many of which I called myself. As I look back, I wonder how many of those sessions were useful or even necessary? As I observe clients’ companies today, I ask the same questions about their numerous meetings. Much has been written about meetings. I have seen estimates that claim 25 to 50 percent of a manager’s time is spent attending meetings.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a meeting as “an assembly of people for a particular purpose, especially for formal discussion.” Several central questions emerge: are the meetings we promote necessary, are they the most effective way to get the job done, or are they just pomp and ceremony?
Let’s look at a few reasons meetings are called in the first place and try to decide which carry a measure of legitimacy.
Why Do We Hold Meetings?
Meetings are usually called when a simultaneous two-way flow of information is desired — and indeed essential — within a group. Thus, we could define a legitimate meeting as a gathering of three or more where group interaction is critical to successfully accomplish the task at hand. Any other reason is not a valid justification for a meeting over alternative methods of communication (discussed below).
An example might be: a new product is under development at Ajax Office Furniture and a meeting has been called for product design and development engineers, the directors of sales and marketing, and the manufacturing manager to review and discuss the product and to identify any modifications necessary before sending it out for customer review. Here, a wide variety of input is needed including consideration of consumer needs and the manufacturing capabilities and costs that will come into play as product development progresses.
This would be a legitimate case when group input will increase the likelihood that the product design and engineering will be effective with interaction because of those with differing points of view.
Sometimes a meeting is called for all of the wrong reasons. An example is: when a woodworking executive or a department head has made an executive decision and decides to call a meeting to get “input.”
Input implies that information is needed from the group in order to form or modify a decision. But the truth of the matter is that many times the decision has already been made and the person calling the meeting just wants to make an announcement to the group for various self-serving reasons and maybe to gauge any opposition.
Similarly, there are managers and supervisors who feel the need to get in front of their employees in order to exercise their management skills and control to keep the group focused. This is often just an ego trip and not even close to a reason to call a meeting.
• The first of these bad-idea-meetings is one where a manager calls a meeting just because it is a regularly scheduled meeting. Maybe there has always been a Monday morning staff meeting at 9 a.m. but that does not mean that every one was necessary or that everyone needs to attend. The first rule regarding meetings is — “meet only from necessity” — and tradition does not dictate necessity.
• Any meeting with a mystery agenda is definitely a bad-idea-meeting. If the attendees are not given advance notice of the topic, the meeting becomes a lecture because everyone comes unprepared to contribute in a meaningful way. This meeting is sure to evolve into a discussion of what everyone needs to review before a subsequent meeting is held to finally get to the matter at hand. In our Ajax Office Furniture product design example above, the participants need to know the reason for the meeting so they can do their “homework” before it begins.
• Another poor excuse for a meeting is one that is held to avoid conflict. An example may be that Bill, the production manager in the veneer department, complains to you that Chris, the director of purchasing, is not listening to complaints about a consistent shortage of materials and that matters are getting worse and are having a negative effect on customer deliveries. You, the plant manager, call a meeting of all department heads as well as Chris to discuss the production problems the plant is experiencing. Instead of discussing the matter with Chris one-on-one, you want to avoid a possibly uncomfortable confrontation.
When Not to Hold Meetings
No manager should ever call a meeting when one-on-one is better — and it almost always is.
Let me present to you a contrast of two alternative management styles used today as they have been for many years. The first is of a boardroom full of people with the manager at the head of the table. Maybe the meeting is in the break room, but each one of us has been in this spot many times. The other style is that of a manager walking around the furniture factory, noticing what was going on, and talking to workers and supervisors along the way.
Which one of these management methods is most effective management by meeting or management by walking around? I suggest that we all look at the number and kind of meetings we call and avoid them whenever possible and instead, substitute good old-fashioned one-on-one communication.
Too many bad-idea-meetings can be a constraint to continuous improvement and other team efforts. These meetings often degenerate into individuals promoting their own agendas instead of what is being discussed. There must be a team leader and he or she must exercise one-on-one leadership as well as group leadership to be effective. Group management can be a slower route to change than interaction with individuals who are focused with the group goals in mind.
Face-to-face is the best way to communicate and one-on-one is the best of the best. The telephone also works well as do e-mails. These are very often more effective tools than the outdated meetings in our daily management routines.
Thus, the most effective way to communicate and implement good change within your company is to work with individuals one-on-one. Before you schedule another meeting, ask the ten questions on page 31. I think the answer to #10 will be no more often than yes.
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