Making Meetings Matter

Have you ever wished you had a Star Trek pocket communicator you could command to "Beam me up, Scotty" just to get away from yet another meaningless meeting? Do you spend time in meetings thinking about the "real work" you are not getting done, or holding your smartphone in your lap and sneaking a peek at your email inbox to see what's going on out there in the real world?

If you are like most people of us, you spend way too much time in bad meetings and other conversations at work that go nowhere.

Well, I've got a simple message for you: it doesn't have to be that way.

The World Has Changed, but Our Leadership Models are Lagging Behind

Not only has the world changed in the last twenty years, but the nature of work itself has changed as well. Yet far too many organizations are still operating as if their employees just came from the farm to the city and need to be told what to do as they take their place on the assembly line. We're still applying nineteenth-century industrial-age management practices in a twenty-first-century age of networked knowledge.

As a result, millions of people are unhappy at work, organizations are operating well below their potential, leaders like you are frustrated, and almost everyone feels stressed out. In spite of the recent uptick in the economy, no one I know believes things are working the way they should be.

At one level the problem is simple: the world has changed, but the way we lead and engage people has not. There is a terrible misalignment between the work and the workforce, on the one hand, and our leadership models and practices, on the other.

As Fast Company founder Alan Webber pointed out over twenty years ago in the Harvard Business Review ("What's So New About the New Economy?"), conversation is at the very heart of knowledge-based work.

Today's economy is based on the creation of knowledge, on problem-solving, and on innovation. Yet most of us don't recognize how dependent we are on conversations for learning, for making sense of our experiences, for building relationships, for creating new ideas, and for sorting out how we feel about ourselves and our work.

The beauty of the way organizations today create and leverage new knowledge is that the more engaged - and the more respected - their workers are, the more productive they are, and the happier their customers are as well. And almost all successful organizations today are knowledge-based; even retail stores and factories depend on people who are well-educated, computer-literate, and self-directed.

We Need to Transform the Way We Design and Lead Meetings

The best way to improve the work experience - and to enhance productivity, increase engagement, and make work fun again - is to change the way all those meetings we spend so much time in are designed, led, and experienced.

Think about it: too many of us don't know how to talk to - make that "talk with" - each other about things that matter. We don't know how to listen thoughtfully, and we don't know how to blend diverse insights, ideas, and experiences into coherent and creative solutions.

Let me amend that: most of us already do know how to talk with each other. We do it all the time at home, at social gatherings, in pubs and coffee houses, and whenever we meet each other outside the workplace.

Curiously, however, we don't seem to have the right conversational mindset at work. We may have a conversational skillset, but we don't use it effectively to draw out the latent talent, ideas, and insights that are locked inside the heads of our fellow employees.

In my experience, most team and meeting leaders seem to believe their primary role is to tell their staff what to do.

But telling isn't leading. Yes, part of the role of a leader is to articulate a compelling vision of the future, and to guide the team towards that goal; but in a world that's swimming in information and filled with knowledgeable people, leadership is now about enabling collaboration and group decision-making on a grand scale. That means engaging people in meaningful conversations. As my friend David Isaacs, the co-founder of The World Café, has suggested to me, collaboration is the art of blending a collection of individual intelligences into a collective intelligence.

Strength in Numbers

If there is one foundational principle you should remember, it is this: No one - no single individual - is smarter than everyone.

I first heard that assertion from former business executive and author Rod Collins, and I will be forever grateful to him for that wonderful way of capturing such an important idea. We are far more capable as members of a cohesive team or a collective "hive mind" than we are as individuals. There is strength in numbers. We can accomplish so much more together than we can separately.

Except that, as I believe, habits built during the industrial revolution have become so ingrained that most organizational leaders don't seem to recognize how much the world has changed. They are failing to take advantage of the new tools that are reshaping how we communicate, how we work, and how we learn.

Father Culkin wasn't wrong; he just didn't realize how long it would take for these new tools to reshape us.

We must learn all over again how to enable constructive conversations in this age of networked knowledge. But we must go way beyond merely rethinking those conversations. Until we transform the way we engage with each other at work - especially in all those meetings we spend so much time in - we are doomed to continuing anger, frustration, and subpar organizational performance.

Jim Ware, PhD, is a meetings design strategist. A former Harvard Business School professor, he has invested his entire career in empowering change leaders to design their organizational futures by leveraging the changing nature of work, the workforce, technology, and the workplace.

Jim is the executive director of The Future of Work...unlimited and a co-founder of the Great Work Cultures movement (( He has co-authored several books about the digital economy and its implications for leadership and organizational effectiveness. His most recent book, Making Meetings Matter: Leading Powerful and Effective Corporate Conversations in the Digital Age, will be published in February 2016 and can be found here.

Jim holds PhD, M.A., and B.Sc. degrees from Cornell University and an MBA (With Distinction) from the Harvard Business School. He lives and works in northern California.