It must be at least 20 years since John Cleese filmed Meetings, Bloody Meetings, a landmark contribution to management education. So why are meetings still driving me crazy?
It's a paradox that even in these days of instantaneous electronic communication we still need to eyeball each other in order to have confidence in our transactions. Email has not replaced conversation, electronic chat is nothing like so fascinating as gossip around the water cooler, phone and video conferencing has not supplanted face-to-face contact, and all but the most routine deals must be struck with the protagonists in the same room. My assistant divides my day into half-hour modules to make sure that people who want me to listen or talk to them can do so, not infrequently for ten hours non-stop.
There must be limits, and one of them ought to be the cost of it all.
On several occasions I've been to consultation meetings in charities at which no one seemed to listen very much and no conclusions were reached.
Let's see: 50 people for a day, costing their employers on average £30,000 each for a year of say 320 working days, meeting three times - that comes to more than £14,000 to do nothing.
I accept that sometimes the process of meeting is more important than the content and I can think of a number of groups where there is vital affirmation in simply being together. But do the paid staff really need this reassurance too? I've referred before to the delusion that everything must be nice for the people involved in the charity sector. One way of making nice is to listen to everybody's opinion, and what better way than to get them all into a room and let them talk? But who pays?
I often hear the word 'democracy' used in the context of management in charities (though never by me). This seems to mean taking the viewpoint of everyone who might have an interest in the outcome of a decision - and holding meetings. The result is to undermine good management: if everyone's opinion is as good as everyone else's, what happens to authority and accountability?
No wonder people from business and industry think charities can't manage their way out of a paper bag.
When Harry Cayton was chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, he once asked me "Is your job like mine? My working day consists entirely of unwanted meetings broken up by interruptions." So it's not just me, then.
Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief