Most meetings in organizational life follow a script. Everyone plays their part and says their lines. Someone--the department head, VP, or dean--calls a meeting. His immediate direct report feels that if too many issues are raised, nothing will get done. The administrative director is willing to have the meeting, but wants to specify parameters, set a time limit, and start with the agenda in place. The others invited to the meeting understand the broad agenda, but they have their own agendas and issues. Unfortunately, the meeting chair is too facilitative. After forty minutes, it becomes clear that the agenda has long since crashed and burned. Everyone wants to put their issues on the table, and the discussion degenerates into several smaller, simultaneous conversations. The meeting chair tries to wrest back control, but doesn't want to be abrupt; others try to help him focus the discussion, to no avail. After two hours, the meeting ends with an agreement to meet again.
Dialogue is celebrated today. As corporations move further away from traditional, directive leadership, innovation team leaders and organization members find themselves spending a lot of time in some kind of dialogue--processing ideas, brainstorming, and engaging in continuous open discussion. Virtual and real meetings are the modus operandi of organizational life. Certainly the internet, webinars, and video conferencing haven't diminished the need for meetings, but have increased it.
One organizational leader told me, "In the old days we had meetings on Friday afternoons. It was the best logistical time for everyone. It seems now that we meet on the drop of a hat. It seems now everyone is asking 'Why didn't I call for a meeting? Why don't we dialogue?' In the old days at least I had a distancing excuse. Nowadays, a no-meeting day is a rarity."
While meetings, brainstorming sessions, and problem-solving gatherings are important, never lose sight of their final purpose: helping you get things done. While you want to make adjustments and solve problems, don't process the issues to death. There is a point at which you have to get off the meeting carousel. There is a time when you need to stop talking and start acting.
Your challenge is to terminate meetings before everyone gets discouraged and burned out while retaining your credibility. As you move ahead, keep the sources of credibility in mind--for you, for your idea, and for your group. Be careful not to end the meeting process abruptly. Let your team know that you want to keep a problem-solving mindset, but that you want to move on to the next phase of execution.
As an agenda mover, you need to understand that never-ending dialogue is as unproductive as no dialogue at all. You need to recognize when discussions have turned into over-processing--that is, when the octopus has taken control. That's when you need to pound the gavel and say, "We're not meeting on this item again. We're moving ahead."