Meetings can be an excuse for avoiding the real work

Charities could look at alternative ways to communicate, says Valerie Morton

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

Q: How can I change the culture of back-to-back meetings in my charity?

A: This is a problem I have come across in many organisations, but particularly in charities. I know I have annoyed lots of people in the past by calculating the cost of the hours involved in certain meetings and challenging whether the output was worth it.

Let's begin by looking at some of the reasons for this meeting overload.

People factors

Starting first with people, there could be two factors at play. The first is that some people feel the need to be in meetings to have the opportunity to display their talents or demonstrate their authority to colleagues. Meetings become linked with power and with recognition, so they are the default method of doing business.

Some directors and managers can be uneasy about having blank spaces in their diaries in case it looks as if they are not busy. They can also feel that way because it forces the individual to address the hard aspects of their job, such as thinking, problem solving and strategising.

It is relatively easy to perform in the structured environment of a meeting, but the real challenge of being a leader is to be able to take a step back and contribute to the bigger picture. It is not surprising that a meeting can be used as great displacement activity.

Now the role of processes. Meetings get added to the annual calendar in the same way that (some) people buy new clothes each season. If you don't have a 'one in, one out' policy, logic says the wardrobe will eventually explode. How often have you ever heard someone say "I don't think we need that meeting any more?" Regular processes such as reviewing the monthly balance scorecard or management accounts don't always require a meeting.

Finally, a third 'P' - place. My informal research has shown that meetings held as teleconferences always last less time than face-to-face ones, perhaps for the same reason that some companies have tried having meetings with everyone standing up to focus on the real purpose of the meeting. Many meetings can, if they are well chaired, take a great deal less time and therefore reduce that feeling of meeting overload.

So your action plan could include reviewing all current meetings to see whether the outputs warrant the hours spent, looking at alternative ways to communicate (information or examples can normally be imparted just as effectively without a meeting) and, lastly, taking a long hard look at your own diary and behaviour.

You can change the culture through leading by example. Just say "no".

Valerie Morton is a trainer, fundraiser and consultant

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