Most meetings are a colossal, expensive waste of time and energy. We need to empower meeting facilitators to stop this worldwide brain drain.
The moral of this story, like the fiasco at the U.N. General Assembly, is to empower meeting facilitators to ensure that meetings work. This requires a fundamental shift in the ego-based, protocol-dominated meeting culture that dominates policymaking.
If only for one important reason, we can be grateful to Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi for his 90-minute rambling speech to a captive audience at the United Nations General Assembly.
Even though the “king of kings” dominated the podium six times longer than scheduled (and more than twice as long as President Obama), and even though it threw the entire opening day of the General Assembly off-schedule, it was a gift because it drew attention to the underlying problem.
The deeper issue is that most meetings are a colossal, expensive waste of time and energy and that we need to empower meeting facilitators to stop this worldwide brain drain.
Having designed and facilitated conferences and meetings for the United Nations, the U.S. House of Representatives and officials from every branch of government, I can personally attest to the fact that the grandstanding on display in the U.N. General Assembly is only one of a whole set of meeting behaviors that not only squander time but also undermine productivity and kill creativity.
The most common complaint that I hear from public officials is that their workday drowns in a sea of meetings, only a small percentage of which actually accomplish anything.
This epidemic of “hot air” is not limited, unfortunately, to the public sector. According to research by The Economist’s Intelligence Unite Survey of 174 companies, participants in corporate meetings said that more than half their time was wasted. If even “for-profit” enterprises continue to lose valuable executive time because of their obsolete meeting culture, it is clear that the roots of the problem run deep.
Consider this cautionary tale. A few years ago the European Union held an important meeting of their 27 member countries. Like most such gatherings, it was scheduled to open with addresses by the heads of each nation. Like the U.N., the custom at the E.U. is to allow each leader to speak without time limit. As a result, the one-and-a-half day meeting concluded without conducting any business because the opening speeches filled the entire time!
The moral of this story, like the fiasco at the U.N. General Assembly, is to empower meeting facilitators to ensure that meetings work. This requires a fundamental shift in the ego-based, protocol-dominated meeting culture that dominates public policymaking.
I remember when I facilitated that first Bipartisan Congressional Retreats in 1997, when more than 200 members of the House of Representatives and their spouses went to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to rebuild “civility” so that the Democrats and Republicans could get along at least well enough to conduct public business.
I was told that the two-day retreat had to open with “welcoming remarks” by Majority Leader Newt Gingrich and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. So I allocated five minutes for each of them.
“You cannot limit their speaking time,” said one of the congressional aides.
“Oh yes I can,” I said. “If they go over five minutes, I will interrupt them.”
In the end, I informed both gentlemen of the time limit; explained that honoring that limit was a sign of respect for their colleagues and made clear that I would intervene if they exceeded their allotted time. Both men completed their comments within the five-minute limit.
Can this be done with Colonel Qaddafi? Can heads of European nations be given time limits? Can chief executives or other corporate superstars be held accountable to meeting ground rules? To put it bluntly, can people with political power be “facilitated?”
The answer is “yes, if.” Anyone, absolutely anyone, can be required to work inside a meeting protocol if the purpose of the meeting is clear, and if a facilitator or other third party is empowered to keep the schedule “on purpose.” When a meeting goes wildly off course, it is because one or both of these conditions have not been met.
To summarize the issue in one word, it is power. The problem with both the U.N. and the E.U. is that the international institution is held hostage by their member nations. That Colonel Qaddafi could dominate the proceedings, ignoring the red light at the podium, is a direct result of a disempowered United Nations — and therefore a disempowered meeting facilitator.
Whether the issue is climate change in Copenhagen or nuclear arms control in Washington and Moscow, health care on Capitol Hill or a local conflict in City Hall, do not think that content is the only source of conflict. The more fundamental issue is often process. If the process is flawed, a positive outcome will always be elusive.
To deal with this epidemic of “meeting-itis,” prevention is far better strategy than treatment. The best way to prevent bad meetings from killing an organization is to empower a facilitation team to keep the meeting on track. It is then this team’s responsibility to ensure that no one, repeat no one, is so powerful, so rich or so special that they can hold a meeting hostage.
Mark Gerzon is president of Mediators Foundation and the author of “Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities.”
By MARK GERZON
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