Magazine article Management Today

Agenda Bender. (Vital Signs)

Magazine article Management Today

Agenda Bender. (Vital Signs)

Article excerpt

Meetings are hell. That great leader of the Western business/industrial world Archie Norman conducts all meetings standing up. It gets people to the point and quarters average meeting times. But dysfunctional, dishonest and depressing meetings still happen. And the happiness, transparency, bonding and empowerment movements make it worse. More meetings.

Bad meetings proliferate. For me, the warning signs of an awful meeting are either leaden eyelids ('Why couldn't a troll do this; we shouldn't be wasting our time on it') or mounting fury ('You're trying to bounce us into rubber-stamping your mad/self-glorifying/hopeless plan') or despair ('We should hold this in the pub for all the clear decisions we'll get out of it').

There are meetings called by people who really, really like meetings. Calling meetings gives them a role -- particularly when it's a meeting about a meeting, a 'how should we play this?' when the issue is easily decided in five minutes by the water cooler. But for mediocre managers, process mania (a form of control freakery) goes under the new banner of transparency and consensus.

For the chairman, there's a different kind of hell. There are those attending who just talk to be heard. There are the secret agenda point-scorers who start off with a reasonable-sounding question that rapidly turns into crazed sniping. Anything that leads to that awful moment when you say 'I've lost them. they've gone feral' is hell.

But, hellish as they are, meetings are hugely important. Yet the seriously clever, good and hard-working often so hate the politicking and the time-wasting that they perform badly or find ways to cut out of them altogether. A brilliant, painfully honest woman I know used to hunch up, gently banging her forehead on the table, in utter despair. She fainted once in her corporation's executive committee preparatory wind-up in Milan -- and then asked to be excused meetings for ever.

But this righteous disinclination to meetings leaves the field wide open to the Machiavellian and the mediocre. Ask around about, say, those politicians who've risen without trace, with no discernible conviction or talent, and you'll often find they are brilliant meeting-fixers. So you've got to learn how. And it is a learnt skill -- the agenda-fixing, the preparatory deal, the boning-up on rules and etiquette, the timing conventions and all the wild obsessions and nutty blood feuds pulsing under the surface. …

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