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A Time for Meetings! – Prof. Rajendra Desai

Nov 29, 2021.

At the International School of Management Excellence (ISME), Bengaluru, where I work, we are on kept on our toes with classes, student activities, mentoring, writing of blogs, papers and of course departmental and other meetings.

The other day I was surprised to have a faculty come to my cabin and draw my attention to a mail he had shared that morning. My first reaction was, I will read the mail in the course of the day and his humble submission was he is personally meeting me as no one reads mail these days! No doubt most of us are overwhelmed by the volume of mail in our inboxes, especially in highly process driven firms, where every mail is marked with a cc to one’s immediate superior (and at times their superior for information!).

I was wondering if this was the beginning of an end to an era of low-cost communication through mail and WhatsApp messages! All of us are no doubt overwhelmed by the volumes of these on our phones/computers but they still remain near zero cost means of communication in an organization. On the other hand, personal communication and meetings appear to be a high-cost alternative. This is a hidden cost and an example can help bring out its seriousness.

Let us look at the general composition of a meeting. Take an example of a weekly meeting with a mandatory attendance requirement that could have about 20+ members attending the same. A typical agenda could consist of a discussion on some routine items and some new items.
A back of the envelope calculation on the annual time spent in these meetings is 45 weeks x1 hour x 20 employees = 900 hours. At an average hourly employee cost of let us say Rs.500/-, would result in a spend of about Rs. 4.5L annually. This cost appears to be small and well spent. Certainly, there is a feel-good factor to meetings with attendees getting an opportunity to ‘catch up’. There are of course general updates and some fruitful discussions in these meetings. Occasionally, an attendee might come in with inputs that no one understands, but a polite nod or two will acknowledge those inputs and life will carry on.
If one were to look at the meetings across various groups the total cost of these meetings may add up to a 10 times higher figure. Management may then want to look at the contribution of these meetings towards their objectives and see if there is a potential for improvement. Improvement brings to mind Peter Drucker’s immortal prescription, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it’!

How can management measure the contribution of meetings towards their objectives? One could say the objectives of a meeting are to provide updates, deliver announcements, share information, solicit feedback and create a sense of participation in a team environment. If the meetings are satisfying all these objectives, the only improvement one could look at is possibly is the cost of achieving these objectives.

As a start one could reflect if some or all the objectives in the above list be achieved at a substantially lower cost through communication platforms like email and WhatsApp?. Of course, one could argue that with so much communication on these platforms, without these meetings, the updates, announcements, information and feedback would get lost. The same thing can happen in face-to-face meetings if the participants do not see any need or value in them to pay attention. Does one miss out on any communication on email or WhatsApp that is of deep interest to them (or from a client or superior)?

In a typical meeting, a meeting convener draws the participants attention to and reminds them of updates, announcements, information and solicits feedback. The convener has accepted that the participants would not have read their email communication on the above. It seems then, meetings are the ‘easy’ way of an organisation, albeit at a substantially higher cost. Peter Drucker puts it very succinctly “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.” Drucker’s recommendation is to make meetings the last resort rather than the first.

Having said that, most of us are convinced physical/virtual meetings are necessary for brainstorming, team building and creating a sense of participation and believe these cannot be done effectively through email or WhatsApp. We have to remind ourselves of the time when flying across locations for meetings was considered the only effective way till the COVID-19 pandemic forced restrictions on travel and we discovered the acceptable effectiveness of online meetings!

Some random thoughts come to mind that may help improve the contribution of meetings and reduce the time taken up with these.
As a start, can attendance can be made optional so that only those who feel they absolutely have something to contribute will turn up and only their time cost be accounted towards the meeting. What if no one turns up? Maybe the invitees feel they have very little to contribute to the agenda and if it is only the convener who is going to share, that might as well be done on the mail at a fraction of the cost! If the objective of a meeting was to discuss increasing the flexibility to permit employees to work from anywhere they feel they will be most effective, I have a feeling most invitees would attend this meeting and engage with great enthusiasm. Maybe it should be the convener’s responsibility to draft the agenda in a manner that would enthuse the invitees to attend.
A few other thoughts:
● Could one limit the invitees, frequency and time for the meetings considering the notional time-cost of scheduling the meeting?
● Can mandatory attendance be made superfluous by sharing the minutes of the meeting with everyone who would be concerned with/interested in the items on the agenda but may not want to actively participate in the discussions?
● Could it be a responsibility of the individual to confirm their presence and attend the meeting if they feel they have something to contribute /discuss /clarify?
● Can the meeting be always avoided if there is a lower cost way to achieve the objective?

Then of course meetings with no objective and agenda (or a hazy/routine agenda!) are the best to encourage a free-flowing meet and greet interaction – we look forward to social gatherings with friends and never calculate the cost of our time or contribution towards any outcome! An occasional meeting of this kind is always welcome in an organization.

References : The Effective Executive – Peter Drucker

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