How to avoid meetings becoming another source of bureaucracy

September 6, 2013

Darryl Cooke

Meetings can quickly become just another source of bureaucracy and stifle your success

There are some people in organisations who are excellent at meetings. They are often very eloquent, usually very diplomatic and they come across as being the best friend to everyone.

You wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings. But rarely are these the people that make your business tick.

They have skills that would make them great politicians and even better bureaucrats or civil servants. They are expert at wanting more paper and wider debate.

But at getting things done you may as well turn to the receptionist because they thrive on “paralysis analysis”. It feeds their very existence.

Is it because the organisation has inculcated a fear culture or is it the nature of the individual? Does it matter?


Well it does matter if you have allowed a culture of fear of failure to fester, generating among staff an inability to make a decision and take responsibility for the consequences without the support of those around them. How can you expect your employees to innovate if they are frightened of the consequences?

Any successful organisation needs a large element of dynamism injected on a regular basis. It’s the thread that runs through the centre of an ambitious company that brings about continuing achievement.

It was refreshing to visit a client’s offices this week to be shown a meeting room with a chest-high table, no chairs and lights that switched off after ten minutes: the recommended time in the company for an internal meeting.

Another downside of meetings is the formality they often create, which again can obstruct achievement.

For many years companies were run like the army. There were uniforms (white shirts, blue suits), strict rules and a rigid chain of command.

GE CEO Jack Welch was one of the first to recognise that such formality got in the way of achievement. He wanted GE to become an informal place.

He became known as “Jack”, he left his tie at home and encouraged everyone to lighten up. “Boundaryless” became part of GE’s culture: ie an open organisation, free of walls and boundaries.

Without needless rules and titles and approvals people become free and unafraid of voicing their ideas, even if they challenge conventional company wisdom. New ideas are the lifeblood of a business and keeping formality and rigidity out of the office became one of the keys to GE’s success.

Lee Iacocca, who is remembered for saving Chrysler from extinction, learnt how to skip meetings. He wrote, “Oh, I heard from plenty of people in endless committee meetings.

“But those meetings were so highly structured you could almost smell that the system had filtered or homogenised what they would say. I didn’t want to wreck the system or go around the organisation, but I wanted to stop being insulated at the top of the pyramid.”

So every few weeks he learnt to call in department managers or top engineers or a plant manager and meet with them one on-one. These were the people known as “high po’s” or high potentials who would be running the company in five or ten years.

He continued, “When they come in they are usually a little reticent, praying they don’t spill coffee or knock over a vase. I relax them by telling them this is not a performance review and everything is off the record and strictly confidential. Otherwise they would all run for cover.

“My questions are simple. How do you get along with the rest of the system? Does it work? Do you know what’s coming up and going down? Once I start firing away I find that they loosen up pretty quickly.”

In fact he soon found others doing it, including members of his executive committee.

And then there are the meetings that take half the day with half the agenda being irrelevant to half the people in the room. And the full outcome is boredom, frustration and half the staff looking for new jobs.

If you need meetings and undoubtedly you will, then make them short and relevant with the right people in the room and with a positive output that leads to a dynamic action. And if you don’t believe me try Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencione. I challenge you to read that and not change your approach to meetings in your organisation.

By Darryl Cooke

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