Meetings used to be a fairly intimate affair. Key people would gather once a week to compare notes and make important decisions. Today, however, they seem to be taking over. We have so many meetings, conference calls, videoconferences, and impromptu get-togethers that it scarcely seems that we have time for anything else.
This is no illusion. A recent article in Harvard Business Review cited research suggesting that executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. That's more than half of a standard 40-hour workweek, and it doesn't include unscheduled meetings or hallway run-ins.
Still, we need to stop complaining about meetings and start making them more productive. As Chris Fussell, a former Navy SEAL and currently a partner at the McChrystal Group, explains in his new book, One Mission, today we operate in a far more complex environment that requires a high degree of collaboration and interoperability. So meetings today need to function as enablers of networks, not extensions of hierarchies.
How the Nature of Work Has Evolved
One reason we have more meetings is that the nature of work has changed. Let's think about a basic task, such as designing a marketing plan. It used to be fairly straightforward. You contacted suppliers for rates, worked out what would be the most cost-effective options, and placed an order. Most of the time was spent on negotiations -- usually over the phone -- and making necessary calculations, which you did quietly in your office.
Today, however, those tasks are mostly automated. Marketing plans, however, have become exponentially more complex, focusing not just on mass media but a dizzying array of mobile, social, and interactive options. They need to be coordinated among a wide array of specialist teams to produce a coherent initiative.
It's not just marketing either. Scientists are experiencing the same pressures that corporate executives are. The journal Nature recently noted that the average scientific paper today has four times as many authors as one did in 1950. The work scientists are doing is also far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past.
The Shift From Hierarchies to Networks
Another major shift has been that of moving from hierarchies to networks. Let's return to the marketing example above. It used to be that the plan would have been formulated at the VP level, and everyone below would execute according to the specifications given in the plan. A weekly update meeting would have sufficed for management to monitor progress.
Today, however, there can be dozens of teams working on a single marketing plan, and each one needs to coordinate not only with suppliers but also internal teams such as technology, strategy, sales, and e-commerce. Clearly, a single meeting will no longer suffice, because we need to be not only vertically aligned according to the hierarchy but also horizontally aligned across the network.
A wide variety of communication technologies, including email, instant messaging, conference calls, and videoconferencing, has arisen to meet the challenges of the networked marketplace. However, these often create even more demands on our time, increasing frustration, stress, and overwork.
A big part of the problem is that while the function of meetings has changed -- to facilitate networks rather than hierarchies -- the structure of the meetings themselves have remained largely the same.
Meetings to Impress Versus Meetings to Express
Typically, meetings reflect and reinforce the hierarchy in the organization. The highest-ranking member sets the agenda and runs the meeting, allotting time as he or she sees fit. Going around the room, each person offers his or her input with the manager's perspective in mind. Career opportunities often reflect performance in such a setting.
As Fussell explains in his book, this pattern can be an impediment to agility and interoperability. "The meeting structure is based on an outdated bureaucratic model," he told me. "We need to reimagine meetings around a network model, where the goal is not to necessarily make decisions, but to share information so that decisions can be made and executed at the tactical level."
His firm advises its clients to implement a version of the "O&I" forum that was developed to combat terrorists in Iraq. The purpose of the O&I forum is to ensure maximum communication across a diverse set of actors. The meeting is not run by the highest-ranking officer but by a meeting coordinator and is composed of five-minute updates designed to inform, not impress.
In the military version, thousands of people would be tuned in to daily O&I meetings, including a wide array of partner agencies as well as military officers and frontline soldiers in the field. Since moving to the private sector, the format has been implemented at organizations as diverse as Under Armour, Intuit, a state agency in Oklahoma, and a real estate investment bank.
The purpose of these meetings is not to devise strategy or even to coordinate a specific action, but to enable connections among those that attend. For example, the London office at an investment bank wouldn't be expected to tout the success of the latest deal, but to inform everyone of a new trend, such as an emerging investor class, so others could follow up to get more information and insight.
Making Collaboration a Competitive Advantage
The purpose of organizations used to be to execute strategy formulated at the top. Today, however, events move far too quickly to be addressed by annual or even quarterly planning. It is not enough to race as fast as we can down a chosen course. We need to notice when a more prodigious one begins to appear. We need to manage not for stability but for disruption.
So today we need to rethink the role of leaders, who are no longer needed primarily to plan and direct action but to shape organizational culture and maximize agility and interoperability. That cannot be achieved with fluffy rhetoric or newfangled organizational charts, but needs to be implemented at the ground level on a day-to-day basis.
The basic building block of organizational culture is how meetings are run. We need to redesign them to become platforms for building connections and sharing information rather than vehicles to transmit and enforce strategic directives that have been handed down from above. Today, collaboration is becoming a key competitive advantage, and our meetings should reflect that.
We also need to understand that the value of a meeting is not what happens within its confines but what it catalyzes beyond. If we can use meetings to widen and deepen connections within the organization, then they can enhance our ability to adapt and innovate. Otherwise, we're just wasting our time.