Can You Have Meetings and Still Innovate?
There is no consensus when it comes to meetings and their impact on organizational, entrepreneurial, and personal innovation.
Advocates of meetings stress the benefits of brainstorming and repeat the adage, “many hands make light work.”
Those who look down on meetings point out how much time they waste and the risk of ideas being shaped by groupthink. Members of the anti-meeting camp most likely take pleasure in the words of John Kenneth Galbraith: “Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.”
So as an entrepreneur, what do you do? Do you limit meetings and miss out on exciting brainstorming sessions? Or do you schedule as many meetings as you can at the risk of being seen as a pedantic time waster?
Let’s study both extremes in detail:
David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, is a proponent of meetings. He believes in collaborating with people from multiple professional backgrounds to come up with new, creative ideas. His success, he believes, lays in the fact that he gives people the courage to be creative. By fostering a safe, unchallenging environment, he thinks he can get the best out his employees. He’s the kind of guy who welcomes silly, absurd ideas and tries them out before balking at them.
Watching David Kelley’s team in action gives one a sense of the power of meetings. Everyone is friendly, relaxed and productive. Things get done. Charts get drawn, projects get assigned, and people work with focus.
Then examine Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and recent purchaser of the Washington Post. While he hasn’t banned meetings, he certainly doesn’t waste time in them. If someone is talking and they don’t get to the point, he’ll check his email or simply walk out of the office. Unlike Kelley, he’s not about creating a nurturing, caring environment where people spontaneously pitch an old idea. If people haven’t thought out their pitch or idea, Bezos is unforgiving.
Yet Amazon isn’t a dour, soulless, uncreative place. They’ve singlehandedly changed the way people buy and read books. They’re growing every year and scaring established publishers and retailers every quarter. Perhaps the cut-to-the-chase atmosphere leaves Bezos and Co. with plenty of time for coming up with great, new ideas.
Leaders should stick to the clock and keep meetings tight. But there isn’t any problem with exploring wild ideas and letting meetings run on longer than should, as long as they stay focused.
As a pragmatic leader, you need to understand that never-ending dialogue is as unproductive as no dialogue at all. You need to recognize the point at which discussions have turned into over-processing-;when the octopus has taken control. That’s when you need to be able to say, “We’re not meeting on this item again. We’re moving ahead.”
Meetings are fine. But don’t process things to death.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.