Overcoming Meeting Boredom

Sometimes, irony makes me giggle.
Of course, in a boring meeting, you don’t want to appear insufficiently respectful. You laugh on the inside and hold ‘resting meeting face’ (alert eyes turned to every speaker, soft nods to affirm, with the occasional ‘mmm’ to show thoughtful consideration) to the outside world.
On the inside though, I’m laughing.

I, like many of you, have been invited to too many loooong executive meeting (the LEM, as it’s known). The person chairing this particularly long version of the LEM – 8.30am to 5 pm – had just, in the (15minute) break been telling me about mindfulness and her weekend in a variety of yoga positions, reflecting on how brains work – on plasticity, self-talk while we’re listening, and the value of deep connection.

Now, here we were at hour five of sitting perfectly upright in uncomfortable chairs, flipping our iPads across the (too) packed agenda and ‘papers taken as read’ and trying to stay sufficiently alert. We are waiting to add that essential sentence – or perhaps a short phrase – into the most important topics of the day, while trying desperately to avoid the Table Mints – we all know they’re a slippery slope.

So, before we numbly accept the ‘Long Executive Meeting’ as essential to corporate life and indeed to running companies, I’d love to pause and reflect. Let’s ask whether LEMs are really an effective way to meet, to make decisions, to build relationships, to consider risk or to run big organisations.

Here’s some thoughts:

The Agenda – The ‘Slot’ System

So many LEMs – be they Board Meetings, Executive Meeting, Senior Team Meetings, or Committees for something or another – run to an agenda built on a ‘slot’ system. 20minute ‘slots’. Name three important conversations you’d like to join that can be discussed in 20minutes? You have to share that 20minutes with 20 friends too, so you get a minute each. Maximum. Go!

Now, imagine THE most important thing in your workplace right now. How long would a good conversation take to resolve it? The ‘Slot System’ will, at best, give you a ‘double slot’ – Go!

On top of that, if your LEM is 8.30am to 5 pm, you’ll have 25 ‘slots’. Name 25 completely different topics you’d like to discuss in one day. Go!

Words, Words and More Words

You’ve been invited to a LEM on Wednesday.
In preparation, you’re sent ‘the preparatory papers’ the week before.
Each topic (slot) has a background ‘paper’ or recommendation for you to consider. In ‘well run’ companies, these are efficiently kept to three pages, plus or minus two graphs. In less well-run organisations, those papers are unlimited.
ExecuRead is a business founded in 1979, which looks at reading and comprehension ability in executives.
According to ExecuRead, the average person in business reads no faster than people did 100 years ago. The average reading speed is 200 to 250 words a minute in non-technical material roughly 2mins per page. (In technical material, the average reading rate is approximately 50 to 75 words a minute roughly 5 to 6 minutes per page).
So, your 3 pages for each of the 25 ‘slots’ is 75 pages minimum x 2mins a page, plus half of them have graphs so that 5mins per page. That’s a total of 4.5hours of reading in prep for the well-run meeting and infinitesimally more for the less well run.
As a good Exec, you also get more information, by asking a few questions of some of the authors in advance. Let’s add two hours (and a coffee or two) for being a good collaborator.

That’s almost another full day to prepare for your LEM.

Too Many Seats

So, now you’re prepared, and you’ve allocated the time.
You head into the meeting.
In big organisations, there are 20 other important executives in the room.
To share fairly (plus or minus a bombastic colleague or verbose Chair), in a 480-minute meeting you get 25 minutes to talk.
(I slotted a 30-minute lunch in for casual conversation and lobbying).
For the remaining 455 minutes, you listen intently.
And that’s before we get to the neuroscience of actual chair. Let’s open the world wide web and gazillion articles linking sitting on a chair all day to Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and a host of other nasties, up to and including heart disease, diabetes, increased blood pressure, obesity, and abnormal cholesterol levels. In one study, people who sat for more than four hours a day had almost a 50 percent increased risk of death. What about doubling that for the weekly LEM.

Decision-Making – Capitulation Post Exhaustion

Some LEM papers are ‘for decision’, so when that 20minute slot comes up, you have to have an opinion, or some form of debate, or dissension.
Think of an important decision – pick the one you care about – and ask yourself this: Could you respectively and politely debate and decide between thoughtful alternatives in 20minutes, with 20 other people in the same debate? Would you use one minute of each of your 25minutes for twenty different conversations, or should you just agree with most, and save your 25 for five minutes on five different topics? Are you making good decisions, or trying to keep the machine working without being a squeaky wheel? Are you capitulating simply because you’re fearful of being ‘that difficult person’ that makes the LEM go even longer, or are you just common-and-garden-type exhausted?

Relationship Building. Really?

We all know that teams that spend time together bond. They work well together and build good relationships. But is the LEM really a relationship builder? It is so ‘efficient’ that there’s little time for banter, or exchange unless you’re already bonded. Maybe you need to add some time to catch up and bond outside the LEM to build the relationship so the LEM works. So, you’ve one day LEM, one day prep, and some more hours hanging out with people. Do you fit in and play well on the big day or does this stop diversity? If I’m only ‘in’ the LEM and not in the social piece outside, am I’m bonded and feel I can join properly?

Personal Sanity

With all these words in the room and on the pages, the LEM leads to two things, both a bit insane.
Firstly, in the room, particularly with a highly collaborative sharing of the time evenly, we lose a lot of hours when, as a normal person, we’d be talking. According to world-leading Neuroscientist, Susan David, we grown-ups speak about 16,000 words a day. Assume we get some sleep and a spot of quiet time, that’s about 1200 to 1300 an hour over a normal day. In a LEM, we’ve got a bunch of silent hours, or at least restricted hours.
So, two things:
1. Post meeting, we explode with pent up words. Is the boring hour where we soliloquy to our family and friends that night, post an all-day LEM? Reliving details that were pretty dry even in the moment, let alone to a 15-year-old after touch football training, or loving partner, after a full day as a psychiatric nurse.
2. We talk to ourselves. David quotes us talking 16,000 words out loud, but inside our heads in tens of thousands more (“Am I spending enough time with my family?” or “Am I good enough to present the next topic?”). Now, inside that LEM room, we’ve twenty (plus) of us all creating all those words, as we sit quietly with RMF (Resting Meeting Face). Is that really the headspace to think, create, give it our best shot?

Continuing with the Headspace Bandwidth Issue

Long meetings also mess with non-meeting time too. Amanda Imber, Founder of Inventium, quotes recent research from Ohio State University where we’re 22% less productive in the hour or two before a meeting. So, now the time around the really long LEM has encroached as well.

Good, Bad or Dumb – Is the LEM a LEMON?

It’s easy to see that the long Executive Meeting may be a dumb idea. But they prevail. Long Board Meetings. Long Executive Meetings. Long Committee Meetings. Despite their inherently dumb, and quite unhuman – or is it inhumane – design, they too often remain the go-to way of working. Surely, there’s a better way.

Some alternatives?

1. Fewer hours – Shorter meetings.
2. Fewer topics – Fewer topics on the agenda so we can focus.
3. Fewer people – So there’s space to join the conversation.
4. Dividing the really important topics into single meetings – so they get the focus, headspace and debate they need.
5. Putting the simple topics into a decision bucket and do them by email or a quick zoom call and show of hands.
6. And perhaps to ward off dementia by considering the Beach House as a better space to have the long meandering thoughtful conversations. A balcony, no time limit, and a conversation off the three-pages-and-two-graphs format to consider the big stuff…like how we meet, how we make decisions, how we include and tackle the really interesting work.

What not to do

1. Do not talk about ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘neuroscience’ while asking someone to a LEM. The irony will make them laugh, albeit behind a Resting Meeting Face.

Over to you.