Bad meetings are your fault

flickr user Iain Farrell br cc licensed

flickr user Iain Farrell

Judging by Twitter this week, an awful lot of university faculty and staff have celebrated the return of the academic year with meeting, after meeting, after–you get the point.  And surprisingly few of those tweeted comments seemed happy about it; most voiced implicit agreement with this cartoon: Meetings are an unproductive waste of time.  (In part, this view follows naturally from academics’ “maker” perspective.)

The site’s a little new to bring the bad news in this way, but, believe me, it’s because I love you all: If you’re consistently in bad meetings, it’s time to look in the mirror.

No one would accept consistently terrible classes.  No one would continually repeat research procedures that didn’t yield interesting data.  But there’s this weird assumption that meetings are just inherently bad and unimprovable.

Meetings are a problem when no one is accountable for them.  Sometimes this is because the group’s purpose is ill-defined, sometimes it’s because people are looking to fulfill service obligations without actually giving their time, and sometimes it’s because people don’t know that there’s a better way.  Here are some tips for changing the culture of meetings:

  • Committee work is faculty self-governance.  Period.  When faculty shirk service work, it creates a vacuum for administrators to expand their power.  (Probably by creating a vice-chancellor or something.)
  • Be on time.  (Chairs: Start on time.)
  • Leave your iPhone/Blackberry/grading alone. (Chairs: You can make this a policy! It’s your meeting.)
  • Prepare for the meeting.  Read the agenda and any attached reports.  Familiarize yourself with the minutes of the previous meetings. (Chairs: Enforce this by conducting discussion as if people were prepared.  You can set expectations for meetings, too!)
  • Never walk into a meeting if you don’t know how to recognize the meeting is over.  (Is there an agenda? Is the meeting about a specific problem?)
  • Meetings are for decisions and for distributing tasks, not “reports.”  Chairs can control what gets on the agenda.  Non-chairs can vote with their feet.  (Note: This is usually not a problem if you write to the chair and ask for something specific to do by the next meeting.  Of course, then you have to do it . . . )
  • Be chair.  If you don’t like the meeting culture on your campus, you probably have the power to change it.  Rather than sitting there bored month after month, figure out a way to become chair.  If enough people start running meetings competently, the culture will change.
  • Always remember that the work of the university is too important to be left to people who like meetings.  Meetings aren’t for grandstanding, free-associating, or random pontificating: They’re for deciding how the institution will operate.  That’s worth trying to improve.

Some resources: 37 Signals: “You Still Want Meetings? Here’s How To Make Them Useful.”; Management Craft: “Don’t Let Meetings Rule!”; 43 Folders: “Running Meetings

Nothing gets better until someone owns it.  Meetings are no different.  Why not make yours better?

Do you have a great strategy for meetings?  Let us know in comments!

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