So what? Making more of meetings

02 February 2024

Aidan Rave invites you to question the value of all those meetings you sit through

Do you ever wonder how many meetings you have sat through in your working life? Hundreds? Thousands? It will likely be more if you’ve worked mostly in the public sector, but wherever you work, meetings are a fixture of working life.

Now, how many of those meetings did you consider to be productive? By which I mean producing tangible outcomes that helped to make an actual difference to the lives of actual human beings...

Yep, scary, isn’t it?

Many leaders spend their entire day in meetings. Morning till night, day in day out, week in, week out, meeting after meeting after meeting. It’s not good for physical or mental health, but it’s expected; it’s a practice that is often complained about but seldom challenged. To borrow a line from the organisational culture gurus Terry Kennedy and Alan Deal, ‘It’s the way we do things around here’.

Is this a call for the abolition of all meetings? Don’t get too excited, I’m afraid it’s not, but it is a plea, based on years of frustration, to grasp the initiative and use two little words that can make meetings matter much more.

So what?

These two little words, applied with care, have the potential to be truly transformational to your strategic effectiveness and productivity. Here are three suggestions for where they might be most useful:

  1. The agenda – the literal translation from Latin is 'something to be done’, which usefully underlines our ‘so what?’ question. Everything on an agenda should lead to action, even if that action is to simply be assured that a particular matter is in hand. Leaders should be clear about the need for the meeting, the business it will cover and the outcomes of each agenda item. Just because a meeting is scheduled at a certain time, that doesn’t mean it has to go ahead. Is there something more productive that could be done instead? Can some of the routine items wait until another date? Do we need to convene, or could the desired outcome be achieved in other ways?
  2. At the conclusion of each discussion – how often do you find yourself in a meeting and completely losing the thread of what is being discussed? How often is the person across the table rambling about things that aren’t relevant to the matter at hand? How often is ego at play as contributors seek to position themselves, undermine someone, or simply project their own significance? More importantly, how relevant is all of this to the people who depend on the issues being discussed? At the end of each agenda item, apply the ‘so what?’ question. What have you decided? For whom? By when? And so on.
  3. The wrap-up – imagine a scenario whereby, at the end of each meeting, a selection of service users, customers, citizens, patients—whatever you call them—are invited into the room and you have to give them a coherent, relevant and concise briefing of what has ‘been done’ over the last few hours. Imagine the challenge of finding the right words to send each of them away satisfied that their needs have been met. It’s not as easy as it sounds; if you give them management babble, many of them will be understandably frustrated, but if you are too simplistic, they will very likely feel patronised. If you can get the ‘so what?’ right for external people, you will probably also get it right for your meeting colleagues and that has to be a bonus for everyone.

Meetings can become an end in themselves. We get sucked into corporate cultures that develop a cadence of meetings that exists just because it exists.

The potential rewards of breaking the orthodoxy could be considerable, freeing up many hours of expensive management time and making clearer and more definable decisions that lead to better outcomes for service users.

Challenging ‘the way we do things around here’ is certainly not easy; it takes maturity and care to challenge habits that have become familiar and comfortable, but adopting a new habit of asking ‘so what?’ can be a useful way to start.

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

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Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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