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Quick Note: Useless Meetings

January 22, 2012

Today’s Quick Note is about a blog post on titled “How to Salvage a Pointless Meeting.”  That topic is clearly irresistible.

The post really caught my note because of the quotation at the top of the post: “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” ~John Kenneth Galbraith   [italics preserved from post]

The Galbraith quote tickled me because I very much enjoyed hearing him speak in person in Washington, D.C., some years ago. Galbraith, a towering man with a booming voice, displayed a cutting sense of humor during his talk. The quote about meetings fits right in with his wry sense of humor. I can just see him reciting that to a chuckling crowd (although he probably wrote it). In fact, I couldn’t find an attribution for the quote, but did find a more comprehensive version cited on the internet (also unsourced): “Meetings are a great trap. Soon you find yourself trying to get agreement and then the people who disagree come to think they have a right to be persuaded. However, they are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

The blog post carries the discussion in a slightly different direction. It sets the stage as follows:

Let’s face it, meetings suck. But the terrible thing about it….the higher you move up in the corporate food chain, the more you’ll be invited too. And even worse….the higher you move up in the corporate food chain the less time you have to waste on pointless meetings.  [these, and future italics are added by me to emphasize quotes from the post]

This is certainly true. Understanding how, and when, to navigate meeting tar pits is a key skill in the business world. The author has some useful advise to offer. He suggests trying to focus on deriving at least one useful outcome from the meeting, and gives some specific and prescriptive guidance on how to attempt that.

What I do when I’m called to a meeting that turns out to be a waste of time? I look to do three things when it becomes obvious that it is going to be a waste:

  1.  Lend my expertise to try either move the project/initiative the meeting is about along
  2. Keep a pad of paper around to write down any ideas come into my head about my own projects/department/initiatives
  3. Get at least one thing out of the meeting

Interestingly, I think Galbraith’s quote was more about how to use a meeting to obstruct a process than a general commentary. The blog author’s advice is more constructive, certainly. The post is worth a quick look, if nothing else, to remind us that it is our responsibility to try to drive something productive or valuable out of everything we participate it, whether we are in control or not.

I was not able to immediately identify the blog author by name, although the blog has a twitter address associated with it: @managersdiary. If you like business quotes, the twitter account posts some good ones and I follow it myself. Enjoy.

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