Don’t Just Say Something

Bungling a meeting is never okay—but in a crisis, it’s practically criminal.

The old adage that meetings drag on because often “everything has been said, but not yet said by everybody” became an epidemic in and of itself during this spring’s pandemic panic. The crisis prompted a rash of well-intended coronavirus response sessions by corporations, NGOs and government agencies, many afflicted by “forget-me-not syndrome” with too many sessions attended by too many people and lasting far too long.

The motives were largely noble—concerned officials looking to overcome an unfolding catastrophic public health and economic crisis. But as tens of thousands of lives were being lost, communities devastated and whole industries shutdown— some never to be the same—too many political leaders focused on finger- pointing rather than finding answers.

Meanwhile, courageous business leaders rose to the occasion, becoming voices of reason and sources of truth. In fact, 92 percent of employees welcomed having their CEOs speak out, according to a survey by Edelman. Among 10,000 respondents during the early days of the crisis, the majority reported having more faith in employers’s voices than political or media messaging.

Yet, many companies found backstage discussions harder than public ones. Genuine efforts to offer assistance and desire to help were muddied by those motivated to be classified as “essential” and expert when they simply were not. Distinguishing between truly urgent and informative problem-solving sessions versus “me too” vanity events or distracting gripe sessions became difficult. Inconsistent scientific public health and economic information further confused matters, complicating efforts to develop and disseminate useful information.

One of the most brilliant management training films ever was the entertaining “Meetings Bloody Meetings,” produced by John Cleese and Anthony Jay in 1976 and later re-released in 2012. The messages were cleverly conveyed to show why we often conduct group events in an ad hoc harried manner—and what to do about it. Their five lessons apply here:

1) Plan. Avoid walking into sessions cold— provide precise objectives and list subjects to be covered.

2) Inform. Don’t presume common agendas—everyone must know what, why and goals.

3) Prepare. Rather than let topics unfold by top-of-mind cues, create a logical sequence of items and time allocation.

4) Structure. Shun hasty remedies. Instead, evaluate the evidence and map out a plan of action.

5) Summarize. Record and capture discussion points and share accountable follow-up.

However, there are three additional ones for boards to remember:

6) Membership. Do we have subject matter experts in the room?

7) Voice. Are we listening to people with power instead of people with knowledge?

8) Range. Have we challenged experts for alternative and more current explanation?

Bob Dylan’s 1967 song “Too Much of Nothing”—a Top 40 hit in 1968 for Peter, Paul and Mary—contains an appropriate admonition:

But it’s all been done before,
It’s all written in the book,
And where there’s too much of nothing,
Nobody should look.