Today is the launch of Al Pittampalli’s book “Read This Before Our Next Meeting” published by The Domino Project. It is a short book but don’t judge a book by its size it has “dynamite” content related to how you look at meetings in your life.
I got a chance to talk to Al about his book and here is the summary of our conversation
RS: You have written an amazing book about meetings. I am thinking that everyone who attends meetings (that means almost everyone who is working) should be reading. Tell us when and how you got interested in “fixing” meetings?
AP: I used to work as an IT Advisor for Ernst & Young where I would attend countless meetings at Fortune 500 companies all accross the country. It was an exercise in extreme boredom. So instead of paying attention to the content of the meetings (which to me, was mind numbing), I chose to pay attention to the structure of them.
I became obsessed with how such an obviously broken system could persist in so many companies.
Finally one day the answer dawned on me: the system of meetings is broken because individuals inside organizations are afraid of making decisions. And so meetings have become the default stalling tactic for important decisions.
RS: Why are people so frustrated by meetings?
AP: People will give you many reasons: attendees show up late, they come unprepared, meetings are too long, etc.
These are valid grievances, but I don’t think they’re articulating the real fundamental frustration.
We want desperately to make a difference. We want our projects to get fulfilled, our actions to make an impact, our organization to move forward. Meetings get in the way. They stunt progress instead of enabling it.
We join an organization because its promise is that many people working together can achieve way more than the sum of those individuals can individually. Meetings often appear to break that promise.
RS: There are so many insights about meetings in your book. What are the big takeaways according to you in the book and why?
AP: The biggest is this:
Trying to make meetings better hasn’t worked and it won’t. Meetings are broken beyond repair.
We have to fundamentally reinvent what a meeting is. Traditional meetings can be about anything, but not the modern meeting.
The modern meeting only exists for one reason: to support a decision that’s already been made. By structuring the meeting in a way where the decision comes first, the bias moves towards action!
RS: Why did you title this book Read This Before Our Next Meeting?
AP: Unfortunately if you have a meeting problem, you can’t solve it alone. Meetings by definition have to be done with others and unless you can transform them (and eventually your culture), there is no hope.
Fortunately, you don’t need to change everyone at first, you can start with people that are willing to listen, people who are also frustrated with the current state of meetings. It’s not hard to spot these people; they’re the ones who walk out of boardrooms looking like zombies. But they may be so accustomed to the status quo that they’ve entered a trance of complacency. Wake them up.
I designed this book for this purpose specifically. So you could easily hand it to them, and say “Please, read this before our next meeting.”
RS: You say meetings are like war, they should be a last resort. Explain.
AP: For too long, we’ve been told the advice “don’t hold a meeting if i memo will suffice,” and it doesn’t work. Everyone thinks their meeting is important so they hold it anyway.
We need a creed that is way more cautionary, like war. War is necessary sometimes, but we should try to exhaust every other option before using it.
It’s a little bit extreme of metaphor, but that’s intentional. We can no longer ignore the financial and cultural consequences of excessive meetings. We have to start taking responsibility for our actions.
RS: Tell us a “before” and “after” meeting story. What was the problem and what happened after you helped them “fix” their meetings?
AP: I helped a small design organization who held daily staff meetings to make sure the entire team was updated on new policies, resolve issues, and make decisions.
It was a financial suck, a time drain, and it stole vitality from these artists who wanted desperately to go back to their desk and design.
So we killed the daily staff meeting, and made all announcements into a daily video blog that people could watch on their own time. Now when an issue comes up, a decision has to be made first, and only if there has to be further debate on that decision will a meeting be called.
Finally, we schedule a weekly social event. We made it optional, that way people who wanted to connect still could, and in a much more fun way.
Now, the big bonus: