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Are meetings becoming a drag on development?

Time is perhaps the greatest resource we have but we are increasingly abusing it in meetings. There are many different types of meetings, ranging from a two-person ad hoc to an annual general meeting with hundreds of people.

But important as they may be, too many meetings stand in the way of development and we are failing to manage both the time and the meetings. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a meeting as “an act or process of coming together.”

Details of this coming together are often prescribed within policies, rules and regulations of the parties but generally it is an assembly for a common purpose or with a specific agenda.

What we don’t realise is the fact that any meeting has different types of people in attendance. Managing meetings can therefore sometimes become difficult and time-wasting.

The Gold standard of meetings is when they are planned well with an agenda, minutes and concept papers sent ahead of time to give participants a heads-up before attending. In the absence of these items, some participants are often clueless.

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Others become bored and resort to their mobile phones to enjoy social media interactions. The consequences are dire, especially if it is a board meeting where important matters are often approved without proper understanding by the members.

It is expected that the chairperson would have a sixth sense and note the behaviour pattern of members but more often than not this never happens.

In virtually all meetings, there are extroverts who, if not properly managed, can very easily derail the meeting or mislead members because of their domineering nature.

Introverts, too, need to be managed in order to dig into their mind to extract some important point that they cannot ordinarily volunteer to discuss.

Extroverts, for example, are known to wander off the agenda, attend to their calls or send texts, disrupt introverts as well as the decision-making process, or behave in other dysfunctional ways that hinder progress.

Sometimes even the best chairperson would have a problem in such a situation.

Tangible results

We have failed to recognise that meetings must have specific objectives. In addition, there must be noticeable incremental actions from one meeting to the other, leading to some tangible results.

Unfortunately, many meetings repeat the same agenda either because the committee does not want to make the decisions, or they fear to take the necessary risk to advance the basis of the committee in the first place.

There are many development projects that lie idle, the so-called white elephants, yet there is a record of meetings and payments to board members for attending the meetings from which nothing tangible comes out.

Meetings have become so common that virtually everybody has at least one a day.

However, if such meetings amount to a waste of time and resources if they are too many, have no specific objectives and achieve nothing tangible.

It is perhaps the reason Charles Kettering said, ‘If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.’

Many people complain about meetings but rarely do we care to discuss what an effective meeting looks like.

The tragedy is that many of these meetings, including the official ones, have no agenda or any document to guide the participants and that makes it difficult to understand whether it is a meeting or a social encounter.

This is usually the first sign that the meeting may never be productive.

It is even debatable as to who is attending the meeting when participants use technology to solicit ideas from outside of the meeting and adding to even a desperate situation.

In the past several years, I have observed the happenings and made conclusions that if members are not motivated from the start by coming on time, chances of a successful outcome are limited.

In virtually all of the meetings, time is the greatest problem. Either members come late or discuss issues endlessly.

The worst case scenario I have witnessed was in Burkina Faso when we waited for the guest of honour to open the meeting for eight hours.

There are also occasions when you appear at the meeting only to be told it was cancelled. Such practices not only kill the motivation but also allow distrust to set in yet we have the technologies to organise an effective meeting efficiently.

Unless we change our attitude to meetings, our development record will be dented.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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