Episode 44

Meeting Fatigue: How can we make meetings add more value?

Category :  Leadership Paradigms

'Meetings, meetings, everywhere, no value added!'

Is this true for your organization too? Do you also have endless number of meetings every day? Do you also feel that you are just moving from one meeting to another without accomplishing anything or deciding on a concrete way forward? We know that a lot of you out there are tired of attending pointless meetings. So, in this episode we will discuss how to make your meetings more productive and which kind of meetings must be done away with totally. Tune in!

Shubham Agarwal : Many managers talk about endless meetings in their organizations. You look at any manager’s calendar for the day, and you’ll find it is packed with back-to-back meetings. And managers don’t have time to focus on activities that matter the most to the organization. In fact, a lot of team members also feel their bosses do not give them time because they’re always busy in meetings. Now, in order to find out how the senior managers felt about you know meetings in a day, we at Vector consulting group did a survey with them in a range of industries. And we found out the following findings, which are really interesting, I think, about 62% of the people we interviewed said that they’re not able to complete their work on time, because they have so many meetings, about 73% of the people said that the meetings are not really productive or efficient, as much as they would like them to be 66% of the people also said that they’re not able to give time to matters that really needed deep thinking or a lot of time because of the meetings in the day. And 65% said that they miss the opportunity to bring the team closer because of these meetings. Recently, Elon Musk also talked about the need of avoiding frequent and large meetings in his organization. This is widely appreciated, but not many organizations adopted these principles, to look on the other hand, I remember a manager who said something to me, and I quote, If the alternative to more meetings is more autocratic decision making, less input from all levels throughout the organization, and fewer opportunities to ensure alignment and communication by personal interaction, then give me more meetings anytime. So then are meetings really helpful? Or are they a killer of managerial productivity? Many managers intuitively know about these wastages in meetings. They attend many meetings where they have nothing to contribute, but they’re still a part of it. And I’m sure you would agree to it, right. But at the same time, they also remember that meetings were meaningful discussions led to a decision, which otherwise would not have been taken. But then the problem really is the effectiveness, which is only known after the end of the meeting. So, we have many schools of thought, which make a case in point on both sides of the table. How does one really get out of the meeting dilemma? Should one avoid it? Or should you really, have it? For the discussion, we have Satyashi Mohanty with us director at the Vector Consulting Group, who spent the last few decades in researching and developing solutions to enhance managerial productivity, more so in environments like engineering, R&D, software development, where workflow is primarily executed by skilled human beings. So, let us welcome him and ask him, How do we get out of this dilemma of doing meetings or not doing meetings? Hi, Satya, welcome to the counterpoint podcast.
Satyashri Mohanty : Hi, Shubham, I would say very well verbalized conflict, are meetings helpful or are meetings not helpful. And there are two schools of thoughts.
Shubham Agarwal : Yeah.
Satyashri Mohanty : It looks like a necessary evil.
Shubham Agarwal : Yeah, I am, I’m really intrigued. Because, you know, you ask anyone, and they would come back and say their days are packed with meetings, but you have to do them, you have to go to them. So, it seems like you know, the meeting seems to be useful and useless at the same time, which is sort of a paradox I would say. And I think because of this dilemma, organisations continue with the status quo. So, my question, what I want to start with is, is there a way out of this puzzle?
Satyashri Mohanty : Yes Shubham. So, if you look at meetings, I would categorize them into two types.
Shubham Agarwal : Okay.
Satyashri Mohanty : One is a meeting, which is what I call as review of numbers. And second is where you try to solve a problem using the collaborative approach. Right? Okay. So. if you look at a review meeting of numbers, and typically what happens,
Shubham Agarwal : Like a sales meeting,
Satyashri Mohanty : Like a sales review, yeah, yeah. Now, if you look at if you have ever attended a sales review, and people put up the target or the budget, and they say why the numbers have are looking bad, let’s say if the numbers are bad. And then you have all kinds of narratives being put across the room. And you would find out that some people agree to those narratives. Some people say it is just an excuse. You have not if these narratives are not correct, you’re just pulling a fast one. So, people use all kinds of debates, arguments. and finally, I believe those meetings are not really helpful. A meeting is helpful when you learn something, okay? Or, or if it is helpful. If you control something, right, you control a variable from going out of out of whack. So, you say that, that that’s where a meeting is helpful. I believe all this review meetings, which is review around numbers, where after the period a fact has happened and you try to try to answer the question why it has happened, I think in a group setup and looking at all these end outcomes, whether it’s cost or its sales, I think such meetings are a plain waste of time, because it leads to defensive behaviour. It leads to blame shifting, and end of the day, everybody’s tired out. And, and that meeting does not add value to anybody in the organisation. And in fact, I’ve seen in cases where people have a prior meeting, before this meeting, so if the review meeting is held by let’s say, a top-notch guy in the organisation, yeah, everybody would have a prior meeting where they would, you know, set up the script. Yeah, before they go up to that bigger meeting
Shubham Agarwal : How the narrative would be throughout the actual meeting. Yeah,
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah. So, what do you achieve it, it looks like a very harmonious meeting, because everybody is kind of, you know, well scripted out, nobody tries to, you know, pull a wrong button, and meeting ends harmoniously let’s say. That also does not add value. Okay. So, I believe anything that has to do with asking the question why the numbers have not been met those kind of review meetings, which is I think, is plenty in organisations,
Shubham Agarwal : Yeah, they are many
Satyashri Mohanty : And I think those are non-value adding they don’t add value in any way.
Shubham Agarwal : But that’s, that’s quite a strong claim. And we’ll come back to it Satya because sales meetings are endless, and probably the most favourite of every organisation. Right? And like I said, probably unnecessary evil. But we’ll find a way out. But before that, what you’re saying in this discussion until now, are you are you saying that the purpose of meetings should only be to solve problems or issues?
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, so let me put it the why I think the meeting is required, right? Because you put forward a conflict saying meeting is not required and meeting is required. Yeah. So, I’m trying to classify two situations where we can identify where it is required, where it is not required. So, I just described the environment where I feel it is not required, okay, be it a sales review, or a project review. You know, why the project is late, and then you have all kinds of defensive behaviour coming in. Those are, those are absolutely wasteful in organisations. Okay, but let’s look at the Japanese concept of Gemba. Right, where when you have let’s say, a quality issue, they say, let’s get together at the place where the problem is happening. And experts get together and look at the problem and try to understand each other’s interpretations. Okay, and reach a reach a solution. Now, that’s a very useful meeting. Why? Because if you don’t have this meeting, this collaborative understanding or reconciling in differences in interpretation would happen over email. Right. And when an expert is writing an email and sending it to the other expert, he reads it makes his own interpretation, write some other mail. And then this guy, again, replies,
Shubham Agarwal : It’s a back and forth, endless email chain.
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, and that could take a lot of time. But if those two people get together, and discuss everything out, understand each other’s assumptions, they might reach a solution much faster than let’s say, not meeting and trying to do it through a email or, or any other social media platform like WhatsApp, that, obviously is very terrible. But even if you’re using email, you will not be able to collaborate effectively. Why? Because there are assumptions in the minds of people. And you need to challenge each other’s assumptions. Right.
Shubham Agarwal : And often I can verbalize you know, well, what I’m thinking and what I’m writing are sometimes very different as well.
Satyashri Mohanty : Correct. For example, let’s take the topic where, let’s say the CFO says the inventory is high. But the head of operations says inventory is not all that high, right? Now, you’d better have both of them come together, where each guy might say, you know, I’m looking at this inventory. And he said, No, no, the way I looked at inventory was different, right? The CFO might say, I looked at the inventory, using this non-moving, then this guy is saying no non-moving is not my creation, so I’m not looking at it, please exclude it and look into the inventory. So, you have a much better clarity on what both of them are looking at, reach a conclusion, and then maybe, you know, also look at solutions. For that solution you might also want to have, let’s say, the, the R&D team there or maybe the purchase team out there. So, you start looking at solution, you need that conversation, because that conversation reveals hidden assumptions, which cannot be, you know, deciphered from email, even if it is deciphered it will take a lot of time. Yeah, so the conversation cuts down those iterations. And you can reach conclusion about reality much faster. And that is why I say that, if you are looking at collaborative problem solving, meetings are great.
Shubham Agarwal : Right. I think I understand what you’re saying. And this makes it very clear, because, you know, such problems can have different thoughts, different viewpoints, different assumptions, different ways of looking at the problem as well. And therefore, the collaborative approach makes a lot of sense, and therefore the meetings make a lot of sense. But let’s get back to the second part of the meetings
Satyashri Mohanty : What I call as wasteful meetings?
Shubham Agarwal : Yeah. The review of numbers. And again, yeah, I think, if not more than 50%, at least 50% of the meetings are review of numbers. Right?
Satyashri Mohanty : Correct.
Shubham Agarwal : So, are you suggesting to do completely away with those review meetings?

Satyashri Mohanty : Absolutely. Absolutely. So let me now this might sound very shocking.
Shubham Agarwal : Yeah, it is.
Satyashri Mohanty : But you know, when you when you say get rid of the numbers, I think the immediate fear comes in mind is how do I control?
Shubham Agarwal : Exactly, that’s what my question is
Satyashri Mohanty : For example, the only way I control sales is by looking at sales as compared to a budget. Right? And then ask questions. But I have a claim here. If you ask any experienced sales head, and you try to say that do this meeting really give you a control. Let’s try to define the word control, control means that you are able to intervene at the right time proactively before the damage is done.
Shubham Agarwal : Exactly.
Satyashri Mohanty : Lack of control is after the damage is done, you’re trying to find out a narrative that you’re not agreeing and all those fights right. That’s not control. That has the illusion of control, because you are able to shout down a guy, let’s say, but that’s not really control because the damage is done. Yeah, real control is if you prevent a damage from happening in the first place, then you know, you are in control. So, I believe all these numbers, right, which are typically these numbers are the P&I numbers, profit and loss statement, or the balance sheet items. They’re all lagging indicators, right? You really do not have much control when you’re looking at it post facto, because the damage is done, it has hit the hit your you know, the P&I statement, right? What can be done better? For example, let’s take sales. And in fact, we are working with a client, they don’t look at sales, the entire sales in B2C environment is broken up into a dashboard or daily dashboard of seven to eight parameters, which is around daily reach, daily range, what is the what is known as the TLSD, okay, yeah, and let’s say the productivity of the sales guy. So, we’re looking at seven or eight parameters on a daily basis, right. So, it is the companies digitally wired to give you all the enabling parameters on a daily basis right. Now, when you look at the plot at a daily basis, you are able to find out which of these parameters are going out of control. Right, right. Yeah. And then you might look at okay, this parameter and this parameter, this parameter is going out of control. So, you intervene again, when you’re intervening, you’re not intervening Why didn’t I get the number you’re trying to find out what is the reason right. So, again, you are actually trying to do a problem solving Okay, right. So, I would say that what companies need is a digital dashboard on many parameters collected daily, okay. And you see this instead of seeing just sales, you might want to see six or seven parameters that is collected and you analyse that you should understand when these parameters are going on a wrong side that means you should know the trend lines and you should have the ability of when this is out of range, right? And whenever that happens, right? You still are going to find out a why, when you want to find out a why and you want a solution, you call the team and do again a Gemba which is the you know, problem solving. So anyways, you need problem solving meeting and that is definitely value adding and such meetings, people are not defensive, people are trying to find out how we can solve a problem. Obviously, there is a particular culture of conducting that meeting, you have to follow certain ground rules, you cannot, you know, blame people, you’re not asking questions as to you know, who is who has done this, rather than what has happened, and why it has happened. So, you you need to create that environment where people do not feel evaluated or threatened, then you can have people giving all kinds of reasoning, then you find out which reasoning is flawed. And so everybody uses a grammar of proper reasoning, or all lots of people come with data. And and then they say that, okay, this is where we think the reality is, and or maybe they might say, Let’s do another meeting because we don’t have enough information, right? So, what you’re trying to do here is solve a problem come out with a solution, right? And those meetings, as I said, is is value adding. So actually, your numbers meeting can eventually be converted into problem solving meeting. Okay, so, at the end, everything becomes a problem-solving meeting.
Shubham Agarwal : Right, I’m sure sales managers right now are thinking what is this guy saying. Because half of my day is spent in reviewing numbers, but then how you have converted or translated that into a more collaborative problem solving, you know, meeting is what makes sense to me. Okay. So let us look at this. How do we how do we set the guidelines you said there are guidelines there? Ground rules that have to be set for such meetings, what are those ground rules? What are those guidelines if you can highlight them a bit.
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, so the first ground rule that I said is nobody is allowed to blame. Okay.
Shubham Agarwal : Okay, big, big rule, I would say.
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, it’s a big rule you are not allowed to blame. The second rule is people use sound reasoning skills. So, if you do not have reasoning skills, you are not allowed to be part of that meeting. So, you got to use sound logical reasoning skills, you cannot talk in terms of rhetorics. So that’s the second rule. And the third rule is agree that you do not know, you might say that, I do not know it’s okay, we might have the next meeting. Right? You can say collectively, we don’t know. And that’s a big achievement in that meeting is we don’t know collectively, let’s go and find out. And let’s have another meeting around let’s, if you apply these three guidelines, right, you should be able to do a much better meeting where people are trying to think reason out and try to find out what has really happened.
Shubham Agarwal : So Satya, but you know, if we only focus on problem solving meetings, even then we’ll have so many problems, and we have so many problems across the organisation, that those number of problem solving meetings itself becomes so much that, you know, you’re still occupied throughout the day with these kinds of meetings. So then how do you solve that problem, because then you have a lot of problem-solving meetings.
Satyashri Mohanty : So very, very important is if you look at organisations, there are lot of the issues that should not come up in the first place, particularly if you look at, let’s say, an organisation, where the core processes are very, very fragmented, right? That means it generates issue just like that. Okay, just because it is very fragmented.
Shubham Agarwal : If you can give us an example.
Satyashri Mohanty : Like, for example, if you take a, let’s say, a Made to Order company, right, okay, the core processes, you know, let’s say buying material, production scheduling and dispatch, okay. Now, around this, if this is highly fragmented, and there are lot of contentious issues around there, right? Then your entire day anyway, you know, this, this kind of firefighting meetings happens, where they don’t solve the problem permanently, but they do a patchwork, let’s Yeah, let’s do this Jugaad and, and somehow get things out of the door, right? If you say this is problem solving, then then also people are busy doing that, and we don’t want those kinds of meetings, right? for that. That’s why the core processes has to move into autopilot, right? Which means that for buying regular production, scheduling, things getting out of the door, the processes should have
Shubham Agarwal : The intervention should be minimal.
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, very good flow if things move on autopilot. It’s not that everything comes out of the month end with a huge effort. If you if you have that kind of a fragmented process with a with a very, I would say a bulk output coming in a very short period, then you need a lot of these meetings to just make the flow happen. Right? So, if you move things onto autopilot, your core processes move into autopilot. And there are different solutions available for different environments to make things under autopilot, then what happens is, you know, you have bulk of the issues don’t even get generated in the first place. Right. Things happen on autopilot. It’s like,
Shubham Agarwal : I think that is one of the strengths that we implement as well, you know, we put the core processor on
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, we try to set the core processes are streamlined, and then they move into autopilot. So, a lot of issues don’t get generated in the first place. Right. So there, but then exceptions do happen. It’s not that really, we use the word autopilot to mean that the intervention would be minimal. But it’s not really, really autopilot, right?
Shubham Agarwal : Murphy will hit.
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, there are there are exceptions that happen. But we should also have a hierarchy of issue resolutions, not everything should go up to the top management, you said there’s an issue resolution hierarchy, that these kinds of issues, which is let’s say, happening, which if not resolved by let’s say three days, it moves to this layer, if not resolved by one week, it goes to this layer, so that we don’t make everybody busy. So,we have what we call a cadence of these kind of, you know, meetings set if it took for issue resolution, right? You can do that. Right. Yeah. And and there are these issue resolutions, at times you have to do to do a patchwork right to just solve the problem temporarily. That is also problem solving. But it’s a patchwork to just see that, you know, things just, you know, manage on that moment.
Shubham Agarwal : The day is somehow closed. Yeah
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah. So that’s still a problem solving but I would call it a issue resolution patch work. But there is a bigger meeting where we say okay, let’s find out the root cause and and solve it permanently. Let’s prevent this issue from happening in the first place. Right, which is again a problem solving which is more at looking at the root cause. So those meetings are also value adding. So everywhere, if you if you try to put your core processes on the autopilot you will not need so many of problem-solving meetings, but still they would happen. So you try to create filters of various layers who’s going to intervene when then you reduce that load and you differentiate, yes, there will be some kind of a expediting or a patchwork approach towards problem solving. And that also requires collaboration, hence, a meeting is required. And then there is this, you know, let’s look at the root cause and, and, and try to solve the problem permanently, which is the next level of meeting. So, this is the way to reduce the load of the meeting. In fact, in organisations where we have implemented this all there, the number of meetings have come down drastically.
Shubham Agarwal : Wow, okay.
Satyashri Mohanty : And whatever meetings are held, okay, they are held for what we call as problem solving. So hence at times those meetings, go beyond the stipulated time at times, right, because they want to, because their agenda was to solve the solve the problem, right. So, if they find out that, you know, they are on the verge of solving it, they would extend the meeting, it’s not that, you know, one hour is over, let’s, let’s finish the meeting. So, because there’s something else to catch up. So if you, if the organisation does not have this kind of back to back back to back meetings, you can take one of them and try to see that the objective is met till the time nobody goes out of the room. Or if we can say, Okay, we are not able to reach anywhere. So let’s have another meeting that’s separate. But you don’t end a meeting just because you’re to catch another meeting.
Shubham Agarwal : Yeah, that’s, that’s exactly practice that is there.
Satyashri Mohanty : Yeah, that’s really bad. Because you are not focused, you are just trying to say, how do I move to the next meeting? Then what was this meeting for? Did it really achieve the objective, right, and when you have back to back meeting, you tend to do that. So basically, you’ve not solved a single problem. You just shifted from one meeting to another meeting to another meeting. But if you ask after you, while going back home, if you ask yourself, did I really reach anywhere? As a logical conclusion? The answer would be no, I just moved from one meeting to the other meeting. Right. And that’s really bad.
Shubham Agarwal : Lovely. Right. I think that that really helps. And that it really targets and addresses all the problems around meetings that we have, you’re very right, we move from one meeting to another, trying to just make sure that we attend all the meetings. So yeah, so what I was saying is that it sounds really idealistic. And do you really think that this can be implemented well, in any organisation?
Satyashri Mohanty : Actually, most of the organisations implement this in in pockets. For example, if you look at any kind of a product discussion, if you look at a company, which is into technical product, which is there’s a lot of innovation happening there. So the technical discussions also focus, you know, they tend to analyse like that, right? It’s just that the managerial problems, they don’t analyse like that. So you got to wear that hat of a scientist. Okay, in order to do that, and it is possible. Yes, you are, right. I mean, there are some cultures, they are so bad, it’s all about, you know, get me the number, I don’t care how you achieve it, otherwise get lost. Yeah, you know, if you have that kind of a culture, then obviously, it becomes very difficult. And such an organisation I believe, is very opaque because nobody knows what’s happening, frankly, other than, you know, a lot of aggression in the meeting, but nobody really has a clue what is, what is the problem? And then such organisations, it’s very easy to beat. Any competition can beat this organisation.
Shubham Agarwal : Right, right. So Satya in our experience, you know, for implementations at Vector. Have you seen any organisations where you have turned the face of meetings in the organisation? And how is that implemented the overall working scenarios?
Satyashri Mohanty : Yes, I would not claim that we have been able to change the culture everywhere. But there are organisations where we have been able to put a grammar, which is only lasting in that meeting, okay. Okay. So it’s like, let’s create a small environment where for three hours or two hours, when we’re trying to do this problem solving, let’s just wear a different hat. And you create that small microcosm of the two hour where the culture is a little different, right? And that is how, if you like, what what’s happening as an outcome of that meeting, you get excited. And slowly other meetings also become very similar, right. But that’s a long journey, by the way.
Shubham Agarwal : So I’m starting a two or three hour meeting, let’s say Yeah, right. And for all the listeners, I’m just trying to suggest an experiment for all the listeners. And we know that you know, this, this meeting is going to be really, really conflicting, because people will have their opinions. No one’s going to agree. But I as someone who is a, who is invited the meeting, want to make sure that you know, we come out with a very constructive and a decision where we can say that the meeting was really constructive. We did not waste time. How do you suggest that I open the meeting, any few guidelines that you have said, Should I say them openly that, you know, let’s agree that we will not blame anyone? And let’s all agree that we will agree to not agree. And we will agree to also claim or say that I do not know, do I open with those comments or how should I put the context right?
Satyashri Mohanty : No. So first is the objective has to be very clear. What do we want to really achieve from this meeting? Right? And many times meetings are started without an objective. Right? And everybody should agree that that’s an objective. Okay. And once you agree on the objective, right, these three things, what we talked about is do not blame. You can and and there has to be a kind of, what do you call as a as a third party who’s looking at the grammar of the meeting? And if anybody says that, you know, you’re blaming you say, boss, you’re going against the constitution, so please stop blaming, so you need somebody to kind of, you know,
Shubham Agarwal : The Empire
Shubham Agarwal : immediately remind Yeah, so the second is people have to be, as I said, very skilled in reasoning.

Shubham Agarwal : Yes, reasoning,
Satyashri Mohanty : Right. And then that’s the second rule that we talked about. So that requires a lot of training that are you using right logic? Are you using rhetorics? Or are you just talking from just experience but without sound logic, right? So your logical reasoning skills has to be really good. And which is, by the way, it’s a rare skill, which obviously can be trained so people can be trained around? And the third thing is, you say that, okay, we guys, we guys don’t know. And reach a conclusion that we don’t know. Because many times, you just can’t reason out and and reach a conclusion, you might find out, okay, we need to do a small little more data analysis or little test, somewhere to understand and then that agreement. Yeah, that agreement that Hey, guys, we do not know, let’s take one more step. And let’s come back and meet again. It’s also a big step forward. Yeah. So you got to say that our meetings will follow these three golden guidelines and it will start with an objective, you should be able to manage this much more effectively.
Shubham Agarwal : Right, lovely. And you know, by segregating the two types of meetings, and by focusing on one type of meeting, which is problem solving, collaborative problem solving, or, as Japanese call it gemba, I think it can really be beneficial and helpful to the organisation in all, well, a great discussion indeed, let me quickly summarise all the elements that we have discussed in the podcast today. There are two types of meetings. One is the numbers review meeting, and the other is the problem solving meeting that we discuss. Now the first is rather wasteful. So organisations should stop doing the number reviews meeting. In fact, number reviews don’t need meetings, what when really needs is transparent multivariable or leading indicator visibility at a very high frequency, preferably daily, right, this implies that digital dashboard and clear and common understanding of when the trend lines are out of control is available and managers view these dashboards on a daily basis and call for meeting when they detect in out of range movement, which is again, problem solving meeting only. Now problem solving meetings, the other one, the second type can be many and overwhelming if your core processes are not on autopilot. So move your core processes to autopilot mode. These meetings have to have a method of doing it as well. And therefore we discussed that there should be three objectives or guiding rules for every meeting that is being held. The first is that everyone uses sound reasoning skills. Second is that no blame is attributed for problems on any individual and agree that it is okay to not know. Right? So as a group, the group can agree to say that we do not know and we’ll come back and decide and discuss again, if you do all the above as Satya claims, we can reduce the number of the volume of meetings and at the same time, make them meaningful, and value adding as well. I’m sure you all enjoyed the discussion as well. If you have any questions, doubts, concerns, please shoot it to us on our social media handles, or you can write to us on our website as well. The link is in the details. Thank you. Until next time, bye bye

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