Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 45;   November 11, 2009: How to Ruin Meetings

How to Ruin Meetings

by

Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for doing something else altogether.
A view of the site known as the Rock Garden, on Mars

A view of the site known as the Rock Garden, on Mars, from the Mars Pathfinder mission, September 1998. The image is an anaglyph — it is meant to be viewed with red/blue 3D glasses. The timeline for many decisions in business meetings is often somewhat flexible — if we don't decide today, we can decide next week if we can make some kind of schedule adjustment. But other kinds of business meetings, and many of the meetings conducted by Pathfinder mission scientists and engineers before and during the mission, had a different character. They had a rigid timeline for decisions, dictated not by a schedule but by external events or laws of nature. In these circumstances, which are more common than we realize, delaying decisions can carry significant consequences, and meeting effectiveness can make a real difference. Photo by Dr. Timothy Parker, courtesy Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Surveying the literature about meetings, it's easy to find advice for running effective meetings. I therefore determined that the market for running ineffective meetings is underserved, and I now offer this humble contribution to that neglected field of study.

Probably the most effective way to make meetings ineffective is to take the discussion off track. If you're chairing the meeting, taking the discussion off track is so easy that there's little new I can offer. But if you're just a meeting participant, you're far from powerless.

There are three keys to taking a discussion off track:

  • Know that you have personal responsibility. If the meeting is on track, it's your own fault.
  • Know that you have personal power. Everyone else secretly wants to get off track — all they need is a little nudge.
  • Know where the track is. You can take a meeting off track much more easily if you know what topics are on track. Pay attention.

With all this in mind, here are some tried-and-true techniques for getting meetings off track.

Object to the agenda
Since many meeting chairs now seek agenda consensus at the beginning of the meeting, don't object to the agenda then. That would be on-topic. Instead, wait. Raise your objection right in the middle of one of the agenda items. You can object to discussing this item now, or discussing this item ever. Or you can insist that before we discuss this item, we must discuss something not yet on the agenda. The possibilities are limitless.
Dispute the way we discuss whatever we discuss
If you If you can't derail a topic altogether,
then dispute the approach the meeting
is taking to discussing the topic
can't derail a topic altogether, then dispute the approach the meeting is taking to discussing the topic. If they're discussing the advantages of mowing the lawn north-to-south compared to south-to-north, throw in the idea of mowing east-to-west. Or mowing less frequently, or replacing the lawn with a rock garden.
Outshine everyone
Whenever anyone else is getting close to demonstrating that they know something about anything, take the opportunity to demonstrate that you know more than they do, or that whatever they might have been thinking of saying will be wrong.
Misrepresent other people's contributions
After Mr. Peabody presents proposals based on data showing that the new product line is outperforming the old, you can start by saying, "I agree with Mr. Peabody that the new product line is underperforming,…" Suddenly the discussion will shift from exploring Peabody's proposals to debating the meaning of Peabody's data. Digging their way out of that hole could take hours.
Attack, Attack, Attack
Nothing gets people going like a good old-fashioned ad hominem attack. Instead of critiquing the points people make, critique their personal integrity, their right to be in the meeting, or their humanity. Degrade others at every opportunity. See "Mudfights," Point Lookout for April 14, 2004 for more.

You get the idea. I won't take any more of your precious time. Now get out there and ruin some meetings. Go to top Top  Next issue: Fill in the Blanks  Next Issue

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