Let’s have a meeting…

…Public Sector bodies have mastered the art of the unproductive meeting; and we’re far too busy to deal with our workload!

In a great very readable short book called The Modern Meeting Standard the author Al Pittampalli describes how he responded when he was asked what he did for a living, he said, “I attend meetings. Bad meetings.” I burst out laughing when I read this, it was one of those moments when you realise someone has just put into words what you would like to have said about your own experience but didn’t know how to.

Like many people in the Public Sector I spend a lot of my time in meetings and I imagine most of my colleagues would agree with me that not all of them are useful. In fact, if we are being really honest we’d agree that most of them are just plain old bad. I do like most of the people I meet, and it’s often nice to see them, but that doesn’t constitute a reason to meet…I imagine what my old bosses at Carlsberg would say if I told them I hadn’t sold anything this year because I’d been having meetings with nice people that I liked to keep in touch with. Would I have lost my job; probably!

TRAFFICThe culture of the Public Sector is one that thrives on meetings, I remember being asked to manage a publicly funded project in which one of the outcomes was the number of meetings that had been held. These sorts of spurious measures only serve to reinforce the notion that the Private Sector thrives on Impact and the Public Sector thrives on Activity.

In these times of austerity and reduced public funding there is a strange irony in having so many unproductive meetings. I often hear people (generally at meetings) complaining that they are struggling with capacity. I was recently at a meeting where someone explained to me that by the time they’ve dealt with the meetings they are required to attend and the reports they need to generate to take to these meetings, they have less than half their time left to deal with the people that need them. One of the meetings they attend takes six hours of their time and less than ten minutes of the content is relevant to them. This person was hired for their expertise in dealing with the needs of people not their expertise in attending meetings. I’m no expert on these things (sorry for slipping into sarcasm) but I wonder if these two issues of having to travel to and attend lots of wasteful unproductive meetings and not being able to deal with a growing workload could be linked?

Cohn’s Law captures this Public Sector craziness perfectly; “the more time you spend in reporting on what you are doing, the less time you have to do anything so stability is achieved when you spend all your time reporting on the nothing you are doing.”

I’d like you now to picture in your minds eye how many well paid highly skilled Publicly Funded people are travelling to and attending meetings at any one time across the whole of the UK, Europe and the wider world, then imagine the amount of money that we are collectively spending to maintain these meetings…meetings that are often badly organised, meetings with agenda items that never seem to get dealt with, meetings that sap morale, meetings at which we decide that PowerPoint really is of the Devil, and most importantly meetings that take resources away from the front-line where they are really needed. The opportunity cost of these meetings alone must run into billions and billions of pounds; never mind the human cost of Public Service failures.

Yes meetings can be useful, often essential, even enjoyable when done well…but we can’t afford for the idea of having a meeting to continue to be the default starting point, the cover all solution for every issue that needs further inspection. For my own part I encourage the team I work with to question the objective of every meeting and emerge from every meeting with at least one bit of knowledge or an insight. Its not that we only want one thing but pro-actively seeking something encourages us to listen closely and reminds us we are there for a reason.

Jim Rohn reportedly said, “Time is more value than money. You can get more money, but you cannot get more time.” I think we would all second that.

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