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Death By Meeting

By Patrick Lencioni

Jossey-Bass, 260 pages, $32.99

What's the difference between a movie and a meeting? The obvious answer is that one is usually enthralling while the other is generally enervating.

The less obvious answer -- which Patrick Lencioni offers in Death By Meeting -- is that both are actually quite similar: events of 90 minutes to three-hours duration, with conflict and the potential to excite. Indeed, since meetings are interactive and relate to your everyday world, they should be more engaging than movies.

Of course, there's a gigantic gap between that hypothesis and our everyday reality. But by borrowing from film, Mr. Lencioni contends you can make your meetings more productive.

It starts with conflict, which keeps people on the edge of their seats in movie theatres. That doesn't mean brawls or Terminator-style action sequences. "Conflict is nothing more than an anxious situation that needs to be resolved," Mr. Lencioni says through one of the characters in the fable he uses to make his points.

The key to injecting drama is clarifying the plot at the outset -- in the meeting's first 10 minutes -- so people understand what is at stake. That might call for the leader to illustrate the dangers of making a bad decision, or highlight a looming competitive threat, or stress the impact on staff.

"Employees aren't expecting Hamlet, but they're certainly looking for a reason to care," Mr. Lencioni notes. "Ironically, most leaders of meetings go out of their way to eliminate or minimize drama and avoid the healthy conflict that results from it."

The leader must search for conflict and, when it breaks out, indicate that's fine -- colleagues should challenge each other, to improve meetings and decisions.

Another major problem is that most meetings are a jumble, with all sorts of issues thrown into them. Organizations need to separate the types of meetings they hold, so the context -- subject matter -- is clear to everyone, and the time available consistent with purpose.

In watching TV and film, we learn to spend different amounts of time with various programs, from a few minutes catching up with the Headline News channel to many hours engrossed in a mini-series. Applying that to meetings, we should be holding four types: The Check-in: This five-minute session -- with everyone standing -- allows participants to relate their main activities for the day. While Mr. Lencioni stresses it is not appropriate for every organization, it can be very helpful to avoid confusion about how priorities are being translated into action on a regular basis and provide a forum to ensure nothing is falling through the cracks. It also saves endless effort during the day by colleagues trying to find each other. "Five minutes. Standing up. That's all."

The Weekly Tactical: This focuses exclusively on tactical issues of immediate concern. It should last between 45 and 90 minutes, and begin with a "lightning round" in which every participant indicates in no more than 60 seconds their two or three priorities for the week. The agenda for the rest of the meeting flows from those reports and a review of progress against key benchmarks.

The Monthly Strategic: This is the most interesting and in many ways the most important meeting, allowing executives to wrestle with a few -- but only a few -- critical strategic issues facing the organization. Monthly strategic meetings allow executives to dive into given topics without the distractions of deadlines and tactical concerns.

The Quarterly Off-Site Meeting: This is not a social get-together but a chance for a comprehensive strategy review, assessment of team performance, personnel appraisal, and competitive and industry review.

Mr. Lencioni dabbles in script writing and, in this book, that merges with his management consulting experience to provide an intriguing fable and a message worth considering.

In Addition: In The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation (Wall Street Journal Books, 306 pages, $39), Wall Street Journal writer Ronald Alsop deftly combines strategy, marketing, branding and ethics to show how organizations can oversee their most valuable asset. It's descriptive rather than prescriptive, reporting on organizations specializing in the issue of reputation and then recounting the experiences of companies in creating, protecting, and repairing their reputation. It's absorbing reading and a solid handbook, with lots of useful ideas, if not really many immutable laws.

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