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I have been asking the following questions to middle management and above in organisations, corporations, not-for-profits, government institutions for over 20 years. The results are always the same, regardless of the nationality, social mix, hair colour etc.

Me: On average, what percentage of your time would you say you spend in meetings?

Standard response: 60-70%.

Me: Blimey! Ok…. What percentage of that time would you say is 8,9,10 out of 10 useful? 10 out of 10 means “that meeting was fantastic, I loved it, it brought me everything I wanted and more, let’s have more like that, rock and roll” 1 means “I just about have a pulse”.

Standard response: 5-15% of our meetings are 8,9,10 out of 10 effective.

Me: So let me get this straight…. you’re saying that at most 15% of 70% of your work life is effective? Are you saying then that up to 50% of our work life is unproductive, irrelevant and, without wanting to labour the point too much, a total waste of time?

Standard response: Guilty smiles, feet shuffling, sideways glances to see who agrees and a growing acknowledgement that the person who leads most of their meetings is probably in the room.

Me: How much does that cost? Poorly run meetings must be the greatest hidden haemorrhage of cash in any organisation. More than the cost of the premises, insurances or most of the salaries. Not to mention the personal cost. I mean, how does it feel to come out of a poorly run 2 hour meeting?

Standard Response: Drained, tiring, soul destroying. I need a triple expresso to start to feel human again.

Me: So then why does this happen?

Standard Response: Silence.

Me: We all know that this is the case? Every organisation tends to be the same so why does it carry on? If we know about it why don’t we do something about it?

Standard Response: Tumbleweeds.

So why does it happen? I think the answer to this question lies with Chimpanzees.

There was an extraordinary experiment done by scientists studying the behaviour of chimpanzees. Five chimps were put in a room. In the centre was a step ladder with a bunch of bananas on the top and water sprinklers were placed in the ceiling. Whenever one of the chimps headed up the ladder to get a banana, the sprinklers came on dousing them all with cold water. They pretty quickly worked out the relationship between making a move on the bananas and getting soaked, so the moment one of them leapt forth they pounced on him and beat the crap out of him thus discouraging any more laderial escalades. (Before you ask I made up the word 'laderial'). After a while no chimps went up the ladder to get bananas and nobody got soaked. A norm had been established.

The scientists then turned the sprinklers off, took one of the chimpanzees out of the room and put a fresh one in. Predictably the new chimp saw the bananas, thinks 'lunch' and starts to scamper up the ladder. The others, equally predictably, grab him and beat the crap out of him, even though now, the sprinklers did not come on. The new chimp obviously has no idea why he or she is being beaten up.

One by one the scientists remove the original team of chimps. Now the room is full of chimps who have never been soaked. What happens when one of them cracks and decides to go for the bananas? Yep… they get beaten up. Why? Because ‘that’s the way things are done around here’. A new cultural norm has been established. A culture that endures beyond the initiating generation.

What is so important about this is that behaviours have been set as patterns for the micro-society. They need no foundation of reason and no effort to perpetuate. A new norm is established and the chimps abide by the self-imposed rules until a newer social norm is established. It is quick to establish and hard to eradicate.

‘But we’re people not chimps, we’re much more sophisticated than that, I mean think how far we’ve come since the invention of navel-gazing’ I hear you cry. Ok, let’s have a look at the human animal…

100-150,000 years ago there were two species of humanity…. CroMagnon and the new kid on the block, Homo Sapien Sapien. They both had similar sized and shaped brains, however, CroMagnon was the stronger of the two; a better hunter and with keener senses. Homo Sapien Sapien was slighter, less physically capable but was a more effective social animal. Which of these two would you assume is most likely to survive in a sabre-toothed world?

The winner is of course Homo Sapien Sapien who creates more sophisticated social structures and is therefore able to leverage collective intelligence more effectively. They work better together. We are Homo Sapien Sapien. If we could take a child from 100,000 years ago and bring them up in today’s world, they would be able to use iPads, ride bicycles and argue about bedtimes.

It is said that 60% of our Homo Sapien Sapien DNA is devoted to collective consciousness. 60%! What does this really mean for us? It means that we are programmed to fit in; to observe and position ourselves with regard to the established norm…. a bit like walking into a party where we don’t know anybody, take refuge next to a wall, grab a drink as cover and see how the land lies, sensing the social norms before deciding whether to delight the room with our best moves. This positioning can make us contravene or sustain the status quo but there is an instinctive awareness and relationship to it nonetheless.

So what’s all this got to do with meetings? I think this is what happens when we join a new organisation - mixed obviously with a smidgen of ironic irreverence just to keep it interesting.... We start bright eyed, bushy tailed and keen to make a good impression, turn up to our first meeting, iphone turned off, notebook out, brand new shiny pen poised and ready to take down action points and pearls of organisational wisdom and then… we start to do the 'going-to-a-party-where-we-don’t-know-anybody’ routine… ie. pay attention to what’s going on to discover the social norms. It can look something like this: should I speak? I’ll wait a bit. Ooh I’ve got an idea… oh it seems like there’s not much room to speak here. Hmmm what's the dialogue between those two ?… no space for the rest of us to get involved... how come this guy keeps on going on… and on… and on…. why doesn’t somebody say something?…. Oh ok… so we’re supposed to sit here and… listen…. and listen more... that’s the way things are done around here is it? Right make a note.... "Meetings are not really meetings their 'long listenings' Got it. A year on and... Does that person even question the meetings culture any more? They have just accepted that when they get around a table at work they are entering a half-life; a twilight zone of semi-reality.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh but every organisation I have ever been in for more than two decades says that’s pretty much exactly what goes on. It turns out that the people who say that up to 50% of their meetings are highly effective are actually the people who are running the meetings. Hmmmm.

The answer to the question "why do we maintain the spirit withering practice that typifies most meetings and practically ALL meetings is.... That's the way things are done around here. It's our culture and we are so used to it, so inured that we either do not realise it's going on anymore. I mean, does a fish know that it's in water?

If face to face meetings have this purgatorial feel, what of virtual meetings? A client of mine who is a Vice President of a fortune 50 corporation says "I love virtual meetings. It's the only chance I have to do my emails". For most people the virtual meetings routine goes... Dial-in, say hello, press mute, do something else. Attention spans are shorter, there's no body language to speak of and thus no subliminal signals, tonality and vocal nuance afford little subtlety and we are forever backtracking and apologising for speaking at the same time as someone else. The net result is.... virtual meetings become voice-overed PowerPoint presentations. How would you describe most of the PowerPoint presentations you sit through when you are in the same room as the speaker?... Would you want to watch them on television when you got home from work? Exactly. That's what virtual meetings are like for most people.

When did we decide that it was ok to spend vast tranches of our lives bored out of our minds?

It's not all doom and gloom though. Somebody once said "you don't have to die to go to Heaven. You just have to stop going to Hell". A shift of focus in meetings, a few key behaviours and a radical rethinking of our agendas is all it takes to turn the 60 longest minutes of your life into vibrant debate and decision making crafted into bite-sized chunks.

Unsurprisingly this starts with Purpose:

  • What’s the Purpose of the meeting? (in less than 15 words). This Purpose needs to be articulated in terms of the outcome the meeting is designed to generate….. what happens as a result of this meeting achieving it’s Purpose 8,9,10 out of 10? This focusses people, changes the way they show up, drives our intent towards the outcome and lobotomises a whole host of issues.

  • Who needs to be there to serve this Purpose 8,9,10 out of 10? Have you ever watched a film you don’t know in a language you don’t understand? That’s what it’s like sitting through a meeting which has no relevance for you. This question frees up people’s time, ensures that those gathered have something tangible to offer and keeps the trajectory of a project relevant.

We then go on to create an agenda based on questions rather than headings and establish a set of behaviours which are inclusive, creative and where the chairperson operates as a conduit for the collective intelligence of the room. A full working explanation of the system would be (and probably will be) a separate book. However, you can find out more at - online courses. It’s a radical approach to running Purposeful meetings. It saves people 30-50% of the time they spend in meetings with better quantifiable outputs.

Meetings are the principle artery of organisational practice.

They can make or break any project.

Work can be a thrilling cocreative ride or it can be life-leeching.

What’s the Purpose of this meeting?

Who serves the Purpose 8,9,10 out of 10.

That’s where it begins…

Richard JACOBS is the C.E.O of YES, a leading Culture Change Consultancy specialised in mindset and behavioural change that designs and implements large scale transformation programs. Richard has been designing training, change programmes and media for 25 years. He has personally trained over 300,000 people, has won numerous awards and is a pioneer in his field integrating interactive theatre, improvisation, graphic novel storytelling and dynamic exercises into his programmes. He is a sought after speaker and the author of the groundbreaking books: "What's your Purpose?" , “The 7 Questions to find your Purpose” and the forthcoming "Rides of Passage".


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