Will There Be Donuts?David Pearl is the author of “Will there be Donuts? Better Business One Meeting at a Time” (published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, October 2013, available at Amazon and B&N), an international business consultant and head of Pearl Group. His book, which SmartBlog on Leadership excerpts here, is not about ending meetings but about reforming meetings — cutting out the clutter and making the most of what meetings remain. I recently asked him about the book and about how to have better meetings.

I mentioned this book to a project manager friend of mine, and he immediately remarked on how meetings can be “great” but are rarely so. And I’ve found myself in the past year or two that I want to take more meetings — but only of certain kinds. Have you found more of this mindset or that of people who are just disgusted with meetings? Did that ratio affect your approach to this book?

From my experience there are currently many more people who see meetings as a unwelcome problem rather than a value-creating opportunity and, yes, that did motivate me to the write this book. Complaining about meetings is like complaining about the Internet. It depends how they are used. As I say in the introduction, meetings are the engine of value in a post-industrial economy. They are where ideas are shared, innovations conceived, conflicts resolved, sales made. Or should be.

Your project manager friend is part of a growing number group that sees the benefits of high-quality meeting and because of that is getting restless with the normal low-standard meetings. This, I would say, is a good sign. The more people who are irritated not by meetings, but by how badly meetings are held, the quicker we will make some wholesale changes in the business world.

You’re pitching the ideas of this book to a CEO, and then to a line manager, and then a front-line employee. What, if any, are the differences in approach?

Having spoken to people at all levels of business, I’d say they all have two things in common. Everyone wants meetings to improve. And they all think bad meetings are someone else’s fault. The first thing I would do, irrespective of seniority, is ask these different employees all to consider the role they are playing in making meetings ineffective. And take responsibility for this.

Beyond that, I like to make C-suiters understand how much their business is losing through ineffective meetings. Our “meeting waste” calculator helps with this. Once the CEO or CFO grasps the size — and cost — of the problem they are very motivated to make changes.

Line managers are often so focused on operational matters they’ll prioritize other things and make do with meetings they know are sub-optimal. The calculator helps here, too. But usually I focus on getting them to see good-enough is not good-enough. One way is to encourage them to stop leading their meetings. To delegate leadership and instead watch and contribute. The new perspective often frees up the whole process and gives them lots of ideas of how to improve things.

Front-line personnel will often moan but say they are powerless to do anything about it. This is rarely true. Even if they do not have the formal power, they can certainly exert some informal influence. The book shows for example, how a little courage and some well-timed feedback can be very helpful.

What might be the first step (or two) for someone looking to change meetings run by a colleague who generally means well but may be particularly sensitive to change — say, someone running an “efficient but ineffective” meeting?

The first step might be to wait till the end of the meeting and, in private, ask the open-ended question “So how well did you think that went?” Usually this gets a few of the problems on the table without the person feeling cornered or lectured to. The second step would be to give them a copy of “Will There Be Donuts”!

Inevitably, readers will try to apply some of these lessons and fail at them the first time (or the second and third). Any advice on helping them keep their nerve?

Good question, this. People often give up just when it’s about to start working. I’d say three things are helpful — apart from just pure persistence.

  1. Remember why this is important; keep your eye on the prize and remember all that wasted energy and time you will be releasing into your own and your colleagues’ diaries.
  2. Tell people this. Let your colleagues know the intent behind the technique you are trying out so they cut you some slack. (“I know we all want to make this product launch the most successful ever. And we all agree we could be using our time more effectively, right? OK, well I want to suggest we change things in today’s meetings …) Do this repeatedly, they will tend to forget.
  3. Recognize you are going to mess up — it’s an integral part of learning — and forgive yourself in advance. It will help lighten up on yourself and even enjoy the journey to great meetings.

What’s the best meeting you’ve had recently, and what made it special?

A client set my creative team and I an “impossible” task. I love those challenges. I can’t go into details, but let’s say it involved designed an event where some seriously buttoned-up folk would really let their hair down and connect. It’s on the other side of the world and, oh, no alcohol is to be involved. We had a meeting to develop creative solutions. What made it great was that the ideas really flowed, no one was battling for “their” idea but instead building in a seamless way on other people’s. Real collaboration. It didn’t feel like work. We ended up with seven great potential ideas and more energy than when we started. I think that’s always the sign of a great meeting.

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