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Cancel the Meeting: Read this Book First

By: Patton McDowell, President

I had the opportunity to hear Al Pittampalli speak at the AFP International Conference in Vancouver, and was immediately intrigued by his book, “Read This Before Our Next Meeting.” Having long been a fan of Patrick Lencioni’s “Death By Meeting“, I wanted to see what additional insight Al would share on a topic that continues to inhibit productivity for many nonprofits. His quick-reading book on the trip home renewed my interest in meeting efficiency and confirmed this as a topic nonprofit managers must consider.

The book’s conclusion won’t surprise you: most meetings are bad, and someone in the organization needs to force a culture change to avoid the continual waste of the team’s most valuable asset: time. The author reminds us “in a world with fewer meetings, we’d have more time for our real work, the work that actually propels our organization forward.”

Why are most meetings bad? Two reasons: they create a culture of compromise and kill the sense of urgency that good organizations embrace. Meetings are indecisive and often lead to more meetings. Pittampalli notes bad meetings are likely built into your culture in three ways. One – meetings of “convenience” – where someone wastes everyone’s time because they didn’t want to write an informational memo that would have sufficed. Two – “formality” meetings – where a manager calls a meeting to subtly assert their authority, usually by requiring mundane status reports from everyone at the table. Three – “social meetings” – are well-intentioned but time-wasters none the less.

Al uses a great analogy to describe what successful meetings should feel like: instead of the endless commercials that interrupt your favorite sports program, a good meeting should be like a pit stop at the Indy 500. Yes, it requires an interruption, but it is an efficient time investment geared toward victory. So how do we change the culture and create productive meetings? The author suggests 7 ways to create “Modern Meetings” in your organization. The meeting should:

1. Advance a decision already made – debate and disagreement are fine, but indecision is not a reason to have a meeting.
2. Move fast and end on (or before) time.
3. Limit attendees – stop inviting everybody!
4. Reject the unprepared – don’t review material they should have read beforehand.
5. End with clear action plans and identify those responsible.
6. Refuse to be informational – the leader sends info in advance and participants come ready for action.
7. Be effective because it occurs in a culture that also includes brainstorming (anti-meetings).

This book will undoubtably make you think about your last bad meeting (earlier today?!) and hopefully encourage you to push for a new meeting culture, at least through the meetings you lead. I particularly like the responsibility required by the meeting leader as well as by those invited to participate. Just showing up for a “staff meeting” with no clear purpose at the start and no action steps at the end is an expensive waste of time. As Peter Drucker says, “we either meet or work – we can’t do both.” You, and your team, have real work to do. Make sure meetings move your mission forward.

Patton McDowell, President