Read this Before our Next Meeting 

By: Al Pittampalli



What many of us do for a living is attend meetings. Bad meetings. The tragedy of today’s business is while we spend a large part of the working day in a room or forum with other business colleagues –and everyone feels a benefit from calling a meeting – but few of us actually benefit from attending. Al Pittampalli suggests our meeting culture is changing how we focus, what we focus on, and most important, what decisions we make.

That said, meetings are the way we make change, and change is how we grow. We need meetings to ensure that intelligent decisions are made and to confirm that our teams are interacting effectively on complex projects. What we don't need, though, are mediocre meetings - meetings that actually and actively cripple our organisation.

In a world with fewer meetings, we'd have more time for our real work, the work we do that actually propels our organisation forward. The sad thing is we're now addicted to meetings that insulate us from the work we ought to be doing. Eliminating this constraint we might finally have time to do what's important, not just what we think is urgent.

Lesson 1: The Risk of Tradition

Pittampalli suggests, traditional meetings, the type most of us hold at work, generate two major risks to businesses: They create a culture of compromise and they kill our sense of urgency.

Consider Yahoo. In 2006 in his infamous “Peanut Butter Manifesto”, Brad Garlinghouse, VP of Communications at the time spoke out of the dilemma at Yahoo:

we must embrace our problems and challenges and that we must take decisive action. We have the opportunity – in fact the invitation – to send a strong, clear and powerful message to our shareholders and Wall Street, to our advertisers and our partners, to our employees (both current and future), and to our users. They are all begging for a signal that we recognise and understand our problems, and that we are charting a course for fundamental change, Our current course and speed simply will not get us there. Short-term band-aids will not get us there.” 

What was the problem?

Again in Garlinghouse’s words:

“We lack a focused, cohesive vision for our company. We want to do everything and be everything – to everyone. We’ve known this for years, talk about it incessantly, but do nothing to fundamentally address it.”

All talk and no action. The entire world was now watching to see what Yahoo! would do. But nothing decisive followed. No real action took place. They stagnated. During the birth of Web 2.0—the age of Google and Twitter and Facebook and Groupon—Yahoo!, the company that could have won, did nothing.

The reason Yahoo! failed is simple: By default, Yahoo! had adopted a culture of failed meetings. Those meetings killed action and, most of all, created a culture of compromise.

Lesson 2: Change the Game

When was the last time we made a game-changing decision that made our hearts race? Instead of a meeting structure that demands that we make and defend strong decisions, the broken meeting system we've adopted enables us to pass off responsibility too easily. Great decisions involve risk and risk scares people: it's natural for great ideas to get attacked or, worse, ignored.

When a revolutionary idea is brought into our meetings (and many have been), no one takes ownership. The bystander effect takes over. The committee adopts the decision, the idea gets watered down, the corners are cut off, and the result is a safe (or no) decision, creating little change and little hope for a better future.

This is pandemic. For example at the British Broadcasting Company, significant purchases often require six or more meetings by different boards and review panels.

Regularly interrupting the day to bring our best minds together to focus on the urgent makes it impossible for them to spend their focused energy on what's actually important.

It’s real work that moves us forward. Work that involves action, struggle, and effort. It's that output that puts us closer to winning.

David Heinemer Hansson, from 37 Signals, puts it succinctly He believes meetings are toxic because they break workdays into a series of work moments.

Efficient systems should be organised around the output that wants to be optimised: in our case, the work. But with so many meetings called, it's as if our work is organised around our meetings instead.

Lesson 3: The Toxic Meeting

Toxic Meetings.

Pittampalli informs us of three common types of toxic meetings.

Convenience Meetings: These type of meetings are called because it's difficult to capture everything we want to say effectively in writing, quickly. That said, convenience meetings rarely add any more value than a memo would have. In fact, they're worse because in addition to wasting time, they rely on nonverbal communication that's hard to refer to later on. Every tried recording body language?

Formality meetings: These meetings are generally called by managers who think it's their job to hold them. Whether these meetings are designed to give off the appearance of control and productivity, or whether they're a way for managers to subtly exert their status, these meetings are wasteful. Even if having convening members get together to share advice or status reports results in some incremental benefit, it pales in comparison to the cost of the interruption.

Social meetings: Social Meetings for the purpose of connection. We sometimes call social meetings without even realising it. I'm guilty of this myself. Unfortunately, social meetings quickly turn circular and expand to fit the time. You might want to slow down and chat, but perhaps not everyone in the room has the same goals (or time) that you do. Keep it for the gym.

Lesson 4: Let’s not have a Meeting

A conversation is a real-time dialogue between two people; it's not a meeting. Conversations are easy to control, easy to decline, and normally an effective form of communication. Unlike meetings, conversations are not weapons of mass interruption. Let’s have a conversation.

A group work session is exactly what it sounds like; it's not a meeting. It's real work done simultaneously with other team members, intra-team and often ad hoc. The focus is creation, the purpose is clear, and the session includes only team members who interact with each other on a regular basis. Let’s have a group work session.

Brainstorms are magical sessions specifically designed for generating lots of ideas. A brainstorm is not a meeting. Let’s have a brainstorm.

Meetings are too expensive and disruptive to justify using them for the most common types of communication, like making announcements, clarifying issues, or even gathering intelligence. Let’s not have a meeting.

Lesson 5: Let’s have a Modern Meeting

This is Pittampalli’s key manifesto. The Modern Meeting is a special instrument, a sacred tool that exists for only one reason: to support decisions. Decisions have always been what moves us to act. They precede all change. Brave decisions lead to a brave organisation; fearful decisions lead to a fearful one.

We must structure the Modern Meeting so that bold decisions happen often and quickly, and those decisions are converted into movement that leads our organisation forward—fearlessly.

1. The Modern Meeting supports a decision that has already been made.

 We should gather only as much input and advice from others as is necessary to make our decision. No need for data overload. However before we make that decision we cannot call a meeting. Modern meetings can’t exist without a decision to support. Not a question to discuss – a decision.

If you need someone’s input pre-decision, get it from them personally. One-to-one. Have a conversation with them. Less convenient for you but that’s the point. You’re the one who has to make that decision. If the decision is controversial, get buy-in from the group, one-by-one. In the end, though, it’s you that will make the decision.

2. The Modern Meeting moves fast and ends on schedule.

Traditional meetings seem to go on forever, with no end in sight. When the clock runs out, we add more time or even worse, more meetings. Strong deadlines force parties to resolve the hard decisions necessary for progress.

With too much time, even the most unshakable decision will be reconsidered.  Arguments turn circular, the same points occur over and over again without more real information.

Keep a meeting as brief as possible and set a firm end time. Every minute that you are sitting with five or seven key people is a minute that is costing the company a fortune. Spend it wisely.

3. The Modern Meeting limits the number of attendees.

When we try to reach an agreement in our meetings, the number of actual agreements that need to take place rises exponentially as more people are added to the group. When there are too many conflicting views, there’s rarely any basis for agreement. Worse still having people merely watch wastes their time and diminishes their stature.

In the modern meeting we invite only the people who are absolutely necessary for resolving the decision that has been presented. From now on if you’re invited to a meeting where you don’t belong or won’t contribute, please don’t attend.

4. The Modern Meeting rejects the unprepared. 

Preparation starts with the meeting leader. He must create an agenda and a set of background materials. Preparing an agenda involves thinking through what’s going to happen at the meeting – what the objective are, who should be invited, what they should bring, and how long the meeting will last. The agenda should clearly state the problem, the alternatives and the decision.

It should outline exactly the sort of feedback requested, and it should outline exactly the sort of feedback requested and it should end with a statement of what this meeting will deliver if it’s successful.

Most importantly, agendas demand preparation on the part of the attendees. Any information for getting attendees up to speed should be given out beforehand. If the attendee doesn’t have time to read and prepare, they don’t have the time to attend. The Modern Meeting produces committed action plans.

In traditional meetings, minutes were recorded. In the modern meeting minutes are not required. All we need to know is the decision and the resulting action plan. The plan should include at least the following:

  • What actions are we committing to?
  • Who is responsible for each action?
  • When will those actions be competed?

After the meeting the leader should make sure participants are doing what the agreed to do, when they agreed to do it. Hold them accountable. If you don’t who will. Completed action plans show the meeting participants that the time they spent in the conference room weren’t in vain. The meeting worked.

5. The Modern Meeting refuses to be informational.

Reading memos is mandatory.

Meetings must be kept for decisions. The only way to do so is to cancel the informational meetings. That said we must make a pact to reading the memos. If we don’t read the memo, the pact is broken and the informational meeting returns. Information has to be shared in coherent, cogent documents. These must be complete thoughts that are actually worth reading and responding to and indicate true priority.

6. The Modern Meeting works only alongside a culture of brainstorming.

The brainstorm is the anti-meeting, the counterweight that sits on the other end of the scale, opposite the modern meeting giving the system balance. The goal of brainstorming is to break free from the fear that often restricts people’s creativity.

The ground rules:

  • Invite people who are passionate about the idea.
  • Praise liberally. Encourage participation.
  • Number ideas. Seek large numbers.
  • Use a timer. Create urgency.
  • Have fun. Get active.
  • Let’s not invite the boss!
  • Let’s write it all down. Capture the essence of the storm.


Before you arrange another meeting ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I make this decision myself?
  • If a group is necessary, how and when should I involve this group?
  • Does the opinion of someone else matter or are the facts sufficient?
  • Can I do this with a conversation instead of a meeting?
  • How much time should this decision take?
  • What should the next step be?