What if All Company Meetings Were Voluntary?

Authors of new book promote unconventional ways to make meetings more meaningful

By Dana Wilkie Oct 13, 2014
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A decade ago, Eric Lindblad—vice president and general manager of Boeing’s 747 program—multiplied the number of people who attended his meetings by their average hourly rate and concluded that meetings were a pretty costly way to communicate.

So he made meetings entirely voluntary; workers could even leave meetings if they felt the gatherings weren’t valuable—with no repercussions.

Lindblad’s story opens a new book that questions the effectiveness of the conventional meeting and explores out-of-the-box approaches to these gatherings. The book, Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done (Berrett-Koehler, 2014), was written by Dick and Emily Axelrod, employee engagement consultants whose clients have included Boeing, Coca-Cola and Hewlett-Packard.

The Axelrods discussed their book in an interview with SHRM Online.

Q: In your experience, how many executives are willing to do what Lindblad did and to make all meetings voluntary?

Dick: Very few.

Emily: But more people are thinking about things like this. Boeing has a history of working with the military and defense organizations where there are Monday morning meetings no matter what. So when Lindblad came to Boeing, he said to each person who showed up at a meeting: “Do you need to be someplace else? Would it be better for you to be there?”

Q: How do you get a supervisor to recognize that a meeting is wasting time, without alienating her?

Dick: In our experience, people don’t intentionally call meetings that are a waste of time. Try to find someone the leader trusts. This person might ask the leader what her purpose or intention is with this meeting. Depending on which way the leader goes—for instance, if she says it’s only to provide information to employees—you could maybe say, “We could be more productive if we did this by an e-mail, or maybe a part of the meeting only needs to be in person.”

Q: You write that a productive meeting must first have a well-defined and specific meaning. What does that mean?

Dick: Most organizations start meetings with a pretty shallow purpose. Let’s talk about a meeting called to improve customer service. It’s hard to get meaning around “customer service” until we explore what that might mean. Is the purpose to make more money? To retain customers? To make customer interaction go more smoothly? You need to go deeper.

Q: You write about the importance of autonomy in meetings. What does this mean?

Emily: Everyone thinks that whoever planned the meeting is the one responsible for it. So they look to that person to run things, maybe they offer a few comments, and then they leave. If you want a productive meeting, people have to have ownership and be able to bring their work and ideas to the meeting.

Q: How do you create ownership?

Emily: If I’m in a meeting of 20 people and I don’t feel like it’s being productive for me, I should be able to say, “I don’t think we’re getting anywhere, do other people have this experience?” You’re not pronouncing that your experience is the same as everyone’s; you’re just saying, “We’ve talked about this three different times, we haven’t made a decision, doesn’t anyone think it’s time to make a decision?”

Q: You write about needing a challenge in a meeting. Can you give an example of this from our discussion about a meeting to improve customer service?

Dick: Let’s assume we want to create a 50 percent improvement in our customer service ratings online. You want the challenge to be above your current level, so that it interests people, but not so far above that people give up. So in the meeting, we ask ourselves, “Do we achieve this 50-percent improvement in three months? Six months?” That’s one level of challenge.

Emily: And I’d want to know if and why there are irate customers. That would be interesting to find out. Let’s get data—how many irate customers do we have? Is it about a particular product? To me, that’s a challenge.

Q: Aren’t a lot of meetings held for team-building purposes—so that colleagues can have face time and interact?

Dick: At a lot of places that is the purpose, but that purpose has to be clear. If the leader is trying to build a team or create a learning experience, she needs to make that explicit, or [employees] will think it’s a waste of time. We’re trying to make some things below the surface more explicit so people can make better choices about meetings.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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