How the word 'meeting' is undermining productivity

Debating semantics may seem like a waste of time, but it's not. Many organizations are completely bogged down by unproductive meetings, and a large part of the problem is that we use the term ubiquitously.

"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," Al Pittampalli, author of Read This Before Our Next Meeting, wrote in Harvard Business Review.

Many organizations recognize an abundance of meetings severely limits time for actual work, but it is sometimes difficult to determine what information needs to be delivered in an in-person setting and when an email will suffice. According to Mr. Pittampalli, a more precise, robust definition of a meeting is necessary to have fewer, more purposeful meetings.

For instance, meetings with two people are not meetings, they are conversations, he says. In contrast, a meeting with multiple attendees needs an agenda, substantial preparation and a purpose that can be easily articulated.

For meetings where the purpose is to generate ideas, these should simply be called "brainstorms," not meetings. The word "meeting" automatically inhibits peoples' imaginative and creative side. "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," Mr. Pittampalli wrote.

Another type of meeting is the kind in which work actually gets done. While typically meetings involve the coordination of work, not execution, in some circumstances people do huddle around a computer or whiteboard to produce real work together. These group sessions should exclude the bureaucrats, however, according to Mr. Pittampalli.

Mr. Pittampalli also described a few types of meetings that are difficult to justify if they are properly named.

1. Convenience meetings. These are meetings that intend to save the manager's time by wasting everyone else's. If the sole purpose of the meeting is simply to disseminate information, create a memo; don't disrupt everyone else's work by requiring their presence, Mr. Pittampalli said.

2. Formality meetings. These are meetings that exist out of tradition or habit. While they might have once served a purpose, that purpose has since been lost. Instead of looking for trivial issues to discuss at this meeting, evaluate the issues on hand and determine if a meeting is really the best way to address them. If not, the meeting doesn't need to take place.

3. Decision-support meetings. A decision-making meeting is a misnomer because it implies the meeting makes a decision, when in reality it is the leader's job to make the decision and call for action. Group discussions can support this process, so the name of this type of meeting should reflect that.

Mr. Pittampalli pointed out it is important to distinguish between high-stakes, low-stakes and no-stakes decision-support meetings, as each of these require different degrees of debate, urgency and attention.

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