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August 26, 2008

MEETINGS! - By Sanjay Anandaram

Many years ago when I was young, not-yet-senior-enough-to-attend meetings and gainfully employed, meetings were, in my then innocent mind, attended by senior company executives who discussed serious and grave matters that could dramatically impact everything from my salary to perhaps even world peace. I was overjoyed one day when I was asked to attend a meeting the following morning. Nothing else was told to me except “there’s a strategy meeting tomorrow and please be present.” Two important words – strategy and meetings- in the same sentence that included an invitation to me! I was breathless with excitement and couldn’t wait to attend my first strategy meeting with senior management.

The day long meeting concluded with the Chairman sagely announcing “Lets form a task force that will create an approach paper on our customer support strategy that we’ll discuss in the next meeting.” I was perhaps not the only one who thought we’d achieved an unusual amount that day which was neatly captured by the Chairman’s terse summarisation. The lunch and coffee were great too. I was totally enamoured of meetings thereafter. A lot of presentations, discussions, arguments, snacks, coffee and tea, meals, and then some more. Going to or being in a meeting was prestigious and was a sign of having arrived. Words such as “brainstorm”, “agenda”, “strategy” acquire an ominous halo when coupled with “meeting.”

Many years later, I noticed the following poster on a meeting room of a well known company. The poster was headlined: Meeting Rules and then asked the following questions:
1) Do you know why you are here?
2) Do you know why the others are here?
3) Do you know what the objective of the meeting is?
4) If the answer to any one of the above is “NO”, get out!

I was shocked at the impudence! How dare someone ask anyone to get out especially when they were in a meeting?!

Of course since those days with a lot more experience in many parts of the world, I’ve learnt a lot more about meetings. Being involved with several young entrepreneurs for many years too has taught me a lot about meetings. Given the pressures on time and resources, entrepreneurs need to marshall the organization via, unfortunately, meetings! But the following points are critical to keep in mind:

a) Does the meeting have a specific agenda that everyone’s aware of?
b) Are the timings mentioned and adhered to?
c) Who’s responsible for ensuring that the meeting discusses the specific matters on hand and does not meander away to meaninglessness? Don’t confuse activities with outcomes!
d) Who’s responsible for taking notes?
e) What happens when the meeting ends? Who’s responsible for ensuring follow up action?

Many years ago, well known historian and satirist Prof Northcote Parkinson who’s writings on bureaucracy are legendary had this to say about meetings

"The time spent in a meeting an item is inversely proportional to its value (up to a limit)."

A Rs 1 crore capital expenditure plan for the sake of developing arcane technology that will give the company a “strategic” edge or a sustainable competitive advantage is discussed and approved in 1 hour. Primarily because hardly anyone understands it! However, a Rs 10L marketing budget will be discussed for half a day! For example, what colour should the brochure be? What should the company’s tag line be? Should we be advertising on TV also? And so on….All these is usually discussed in excruciating detail because everyone can understand this!


How many such meetings have you been a part of? What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.