Lessons from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker: Making Meetings Productive

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A group of us at Barrel have been reading The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker together. We started discussing it last week and will continue over the coming weeks. The book, written in 1967, doesn’t show its age (although there are anachronisms like the workforce being mostly a male-dominated space in those days). Its lessons are still applicable to people who work in today’s organizations.

Here’s what Drucker writes when he defines the label “executive”:

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.

For a small business like Barrel, in which everyone is a knowledge worker with the ability to materially affect results, everyone who works here is an executive.

Over the next few months, I will be posting various lessons from the book and reflecting on how I can apply it to our operations at Barrel. This isn’t a chronological summary of the book but rather a loose collection of topics that I found interesting to write about. I highly recommend this book.

Lesson 1: Make Meetings Productive

Of meetings, Drucker writes:

The key to running an effective meeting is to decide in advance what kind of meeting it will be. Different kinds of meetings require different forms of preparation and different results:

A meeting to prepare a statement, an announcement, or a press release. For this to be productive, one member has to prepare a draft beforehand. At the meeting’s end, a preappointed member has to take responsibility for disseminating the final text.

A meeting to make an announcement—for example, an organizational change.
This meeting should be confined to the announcement and a discussion about it.

A meeting in which one member reports. Nothing but the report should be discussed.

A meeting in which several or all members report. Either there should be no discussion at all or the discussion should be limited to questions for clarification. Alternatively, for each report, there could be a short discussion in which all participants may ask questions. If this is the format, the reports should be distributed to all participants well before the meeting. At this kind of meeting, each report should be limited to a present time—for example, 15 minutes.

A meeting to inform the convening executive. The executive should listen and ask questions. He or she should sum up but not make a presentation.

I found this to be a helpful framework for evaluating how we run meetings at Barrel. Here are some thoughts that come to mind when I think of meetings at our company:

  • Meetings are often scheduled when an issue needs to be discussed or decided upon. We don’t always have a clear agenda, and the discussions sometimes turn out unfocused and spill into other topics. The meetings often run longer than intended.
  • People, myself included, are generally hesitant to cut others off and to be strict in sticking with the allotted time.
  • Not all meetings have written follow-ups, so it’s sometimes easy to forget what was discussed or decided upon.
  • Even meetings with an agenda can get sidetracked because a particular issue gets talked about in detail. People, myself included, generally don’t cut in to move on to the next topic and instead are okay with letting the discussions go on.
  • Our Producers, who manage the projects and are the main point of contacts with our clients, are especially inundated with meetings. They are also the ones that set up the most meetings as well.
  • People, myself included, are not always 100% engaged in the meetings they attend. Some tap away on their laptops and phones and others doodle in their notepads. Some people may have the extraordinary ability to multitask and listen to everything, but I know I certainly don’t. I’m either bored or not finding certain discussions relevant, and yet, I am in the meeting.

Drucker writes later in the book:

Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings—some formal, some informal, but both stretching out for hours. Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed. An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done. Wherever a time log shows the fatty degeneration of meetings—whenever, for instance, people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization.

My primary issue is with the formal meetings that happen at Barrel. I don’t mind informal meetings that happen at people’s desks or in passing. These spontaneous interactions seem to promote knowledge share and sometimes generate enthusiasm and excitement. I often feel that formal meetings—those that have a set time on the calendar and usually have a conference room booked for the occasion—are less structured and organized than they ought to be.

My own experience tells me that in order to have a successful meeting, a great deal of prep work needs to go into it. When meetings are scheduled with the intent of “figuring things out when we meet” and light on the planning, I foresee drawn-out discussions that fill up time but produce little results. What we need are better habits for our formal meetings. Taking some cues from Drucker, I’m hoping that we can explore a checklist for our meetings to A) ensure that a meeting is absolutely necessary and B) that a basic level of planning has gone into it. Here’s a rough sketch of some preliminary items the checklist might ask:

  • What kind of meeting is it?
  • Can this meeting happen in an online chatroom?
  • Who must participate in this meeting for it to be effective?
  • Who will be creating the agenda?
  • What is on the agenda?
  • How long will this meeting take?
  • What are you hoping to gain from this meeting?
  • Who will lead the meeting?
  • Who will keep the time for the meeting?
  • Who will be taking notes and posting the documentation from this meeting?

I can think of a bunch of other details to ask, but I think this can be a basic start. The goal would be to share this with the team, especially our Producers, and to create a system where meetings are held if absolutely necessary and structured in a way to be maximally productive (e.g. appropriate information is exchanged, key decisions are made, etc.). I don’t think we’ll wipe out unproductive or semi-unproductive meetings overnight, but I think raising awareness and getting people to see the difference between such meetings will be a step in the right direction.

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