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Management by meetings

“Management by objectives”, “management by exceptions”, “management by walking around” are frequently used terms in order to refer to a type of management.

This series can be completed by “management by meetings”. This type of management intends to solve everything during and by means of meetings. Allow me to get straight to the point: I’m not into this type of management. My device has always been the following: “People should solve problems and take decisions, meetings don’t or, at least, as little as possible.”

A management style according to which meetings play a disproportionately important role, too often leads to a slow and fuzzy decision-making process, to escape behavior and to the fact that people pass the buck. What happens actually?
  • Each topic (problem or issue) has an owner. This person has to tackle and solve the problem. Of course, (s)he has to do so in consultation with his/her colleagues, subordinates and superiors. Usually, a phone call, an e-mail or a face-to-face conversation will do. It is essential to immediately take action (this applies for urgent as well as less urgent matters). Too often, people prefer to discuss the topic during the next meeting first, which is a waste of time.
  • Once a topic has been discussed during the meeting, it is often unclear who’s responsible for it. All the persons attending the meeting? The chairman? The employee concerned? During meetings, nobody will fully agree with some decisions taken or compromises reached. Everybody should be responsible, but nobody really feels responsible.
  • After the meeting, it is common that everybody goes his/her own way without sticking to the verbal agreements made. This is partly due to the fact that the minutes will only be distributed later on and that it is impossible to exactly render all nuances in them. The minutes are always open to interpretation.

In her book entitled ‘AMBITIE’, Annemarie van Gaal, entrepreneur and columnist for the ‘Financieele Dagblad’, went too far by arguing that meetings should be abolished. The message of this purebred entrepreneur is clear, but it is exaggerated, of course, although I agree with some of her arguments: “Everybody has the right to express his/her opinion. Small adaptations are made so that all the members of the meeting remain on good terms with each other. The final conclusion merely consists out of compromises,” Annemarie van Gaal states in her very interesting book.

However, my main argument is the following: within a too predominant meeting culture, important decisions are postponed although we are living in a world in which acting quickly becomes more and more important. What should we do then and how?
  • Regular consultation is important. In this context, the exchange of information should be much more emphasized than the decision-making process. More than ever, it is essential to take the time to think together.
  • A meeting’s agenda should be determined in such a way that the new topics are discussed first. Too often, the agenda starts with the minutes, the ‘to do’ list and the pending files. And if there’s some time left, the new topics might be discussed at the end of the meeting. Therefore, I advise you to discuss the new topics at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Keep the meetings as short as possible and take into account the time at which the meeting should start, but especially the time at which it should end. In practice, there’s always a reason why meetings overrun their schedule, but this should absolutely be avoided. People also have a life after the meeting and most of them have other appointments or obligations.
  • Be flexible with regard to the meeting’s composition and accept that people sometimes have other and higher priorities than the meeting. Customers are always more important, for instance. In my opinion, it is a deadly sin to postpone an appointment with a customer to the next day because you have an important (often internal) meeting. Moreover, your absence will allow your substitute to show his/her face during the meeting. It is always interesting to allow others to attend a meeting in your place, if relevant of course. It can be interesting for the employee concerned, but also for the other persons attending the meeting.

Finally, I would like to mention that lots of useful books have been written about the topic ‘meetings’; no doubt about that! Herman van Herterijck also wrote an interesting column about this topic. In his column, he especially explains how to make meetings more efficient, whereas I have rather been emphasizing the efficiency improvement for the entire management.

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