Meeting Agenda

Anyone who has lived, or even smelled, and survived the shenanigans of the corporate world would be aware that at the core of the corporate culture of wasting time – alternatively called ‘keeping busy’ – is the endless loop of meetings. What is even more fascinating, and appalling at the same time, is the ingenuity of defining an ‘agenda’ for the meeting.

Let us take a look at some of the most common items that masquerade as legitimate agenda ‘topics’:

How did we get here:  This is a common opening theme for many meetings, especially those that have no obvious necessity or purpose. This opens the door for a gruesome postmortem of anything and everything (related or unrelated to the meeting) that happened in the past, that everyone is already aware of. This is somewhat like a doctor in an emergency room, before treating a heart attack patient, calling for a detailed discussion on the treatment options that have evolved over the decades.

Summary: This item is a constant companion to ‘how did we get here’ – in many cases, it may actually be the same as the first item as pretty much nothing new is added or accomplished in the meeting. Between these two agenda components, a kind of relay race is set to carry the baton forward to eternity.

Q&A: The questions and answers session is tagged on to every meeting agenda in the fond hope that people attending the meeting would actually pay attention to what goes on and, then, have the courage and patience to prolong the meeting by asking questions.  A very subtle, but effective, hidden agenda (pun intended) for this topic is to fish for agenda ideas for subsequent meetings.

Next Steps: What is the purpose of a meeting if it cannot beget more meetings in short order? Very often, this topic helps carry forward the same agenda items from the current meeting to a future one since nothing has been achieved, other than consuming coffee and other beverages, in this meeting. And, the real measure of success of a meeting is the increase in the number of ‘topics’ to be discussed in the next meeting (see Q&A above). An (un)intended, and often unpleasant, outcome of Next Steps is the assigning of vague and intangible ‘action items’ to unsuspecting audiences (present and absent in the meeting).

Parking Lot:  The purest form of meeting agendas always includes a ‘Parking Lot’, which is often not in the actual agenda but springs up on a white board in the meeting room. This is where the master of ceremonies, the agenda owner, keeps noting down things that cannot be solved in the current meeting (due to lack of sufficient ‘data points’, if I may add). This provides a ready escape route for one and all not to bother about coming prepared to discuss, leave alone resolve, any of the agenda topics.

If ever there was a competition for definition of an endless loop, ‘meeting agenda’ would be a very strong contender!

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The Offline Company

I think I got you there – you thought you were about to read about a company that has no online presence and does business only through traditional means such as brick-and-mortar shops or traveling salesmen. Wrong! I am referring to the management cliché, that is all too prevalent, of deferring discussion on any topic or issue during a meeting by simply opting to ‘take it offline’!

Meetings are fundamental to the practice and growth of mediocrity and non-performance in corporate life. In large organizations, it is quite easy to mandate the presence of a bewildering array of representatives from various departments for any meeting. The crux of the matter is that no one knows how or why the other departments are involved – because no one knows why their own department is involved in the matter! And, since no one comes prepared with any relevant information, key issues meant to be discussed during a meeting are always side-stepped and marked for ‘offline’ resolution, defeating the very purpose of the meeting.

Let us track the (non)progress of such a meeting with the stated purpose of determining sales targets for the coming year After losing considerable time on scheduling the meeting through a complex algorithm using linear programming techniques to accommodate all participants, the meeting is finally convened. Of course, in keeping with contemporary organizational practices, very few people are physically present at the venue – most are virtual via digital technology.

Martin (CEO): Good morning and welcome. As you all know, we are in a tough market and there is increasing pressure from our investors to double our sales next year. So, Jason, what do we have by way of plans to achieve this?

Jason (Head of Sales) (clearly taken aback by the CEO’s expectations): Er..Hmm… Yes, Martin, we are putting together an aggressive plan to penetrate new markets. We expect a significant increase in the breadth and depth of our coverage. We …

Martin: OK, what does that mean in real terms?

Jason: Liz, could you please share our analysis and projections?

Liz (Market Research): Yes, Jason. We are currently thrice as big as the smallest competitor in our vertical, not considering the international sector. Next year, after adjusting for regional variances and accounting for GDP growth, we should be twice as big as the median competitor in year-on-year sales growth. This, of course…

Martin: Sorry guys, what numbers are we talking about?

Jason: Martin, in the interest of time and to deal with other items on the agenda for this meeting, could we take this offline, outside this meeting?

Martin (clearly enraged): What other items? Was this meeting not meant to focus on sales targets for next year?

Jason: Yes, yes. We will deal with that offline – I promise. Could we now quickly discuss participation in trade shows next year?

Martin (exasperated): Could we not take that offline?

All Hands On Deck

It is Friday evening and the fuse goes off. “I want all hands on deck – stat; no excuses” bellows the Chief Operating Officer, currently Dan (in a ‘dynamic’ organization one needs to keep track of these positions in real time). Apparently things are fast approaching the point of no return with respect to the launch of the company’s new web site.

In line with the corporate principle that ‘all hands on deck’ does not necessarily mean ‘all relevant hands on deck’, the executive assistant to the COO, just bidding goodbye to her weekend plans, rounds up the usual (irrelevant) suspects – Director Purchasing, Director Transport, Admin Assistant in charge of the Cafeteria, Vice President Legal and the Manager Accounts (since the CFO could not be traced after several phone calls). In parallel, the Project Manager in charge of completing the new web site, Helen, trying her best to get everything ready for a timely launch by Sunday night, gets the summons from the COO’s office and asks all her team members – programmers, web designers, database administrators and others – to stop their work and report to the control tower, sorry, control room.

Let us pretend to be a fly on the wall in the control room and listen in.

COO: Thanks for responding to the call quickly. And thanks to our Admin department, pizza and coffee will be served round the clock. We will not leave this room till we have the new web site up and running.

Director, Transport: We have three cars waiting at our disposal for all emergencies including hospitalization, if necessary, for everyone present here as well as their respective families.

Manager, Accounts: The CFO has specially cleared funds for rearranging any travel and other plans that may need to be rescheduled for people who have graciously agreed to jump into this crisis.

Programmer-1 (looking at his code on his laptop and thinking….): What the f…. is the problem with these guys?

Project Manager (to the COO): Sir, what seems to be the problem?

COO (waving a piece of paper): Helen, what do you mean? You just reported that there are still 10 major bugs and 2 ½ (two and a half?) minor issues with the web site.

(All programmers and technical people are on edge now)

Project Manager: But, sir …..

COO: Cool guys. We are all in this together. I am not blaming anyone. It is time for true teamwork.

VP, Legal: That is right, Dan. No sweat. Though the next shareholders meeting is just round the corner – (looking at his calendar) in six months – I am sure we can launch the new web site in time.

Programmer-1: (looking up from his laptop, barely able to contain himself, and thinking ….) Are you kidding me?

Project Manager (handing over a freshly printed sheet of paper to the COO): I think you were referring to an old status report. Here is the current status. All issues have been resolved and we have finished our final integration testing. We were just taking a backup of the old web site when you called. We are all set and good to go.

COO (with a triumphant look): Fantastic news. I knew I could always depend on the team. Thanks, everyone. Please feel free to take the remaining pizza home.

Catching Up

“Sorry I am late – was unable to locate this meeting room in time – could I quickly catch up on the discussions so far?” This every day phenomenon halts the progress of many a meeting and puts everything in rewind mode.

The ‘catching up’ syndrome is a sibling to the ‘status update’ malady in corporate life, with equal power to disrupt and, many times, derail the rare phenomenon of forward progress in corporate meetings.

The golden rule in the deployment of this powerful tool is that you cannot be a junior member amongst the attendees – a junior associate in any meeting does not have the privilege of catching up that also goes hand in hand with his/her lack of privilege of coming late to the meeting – a prerequisite that lays the foundation for the need to catch up. Viewed in a positive manner (grin!), this is one of the unofficial perks of going up the executive ladder.

Let us follow the meeting for a few minutes to realize the magnitude of disruption and interruption that can be unleashed:

A meeting of territory managers is under way to determine the change in pricing strategy needed to respond to a recent price war initiated by a competitor. All the past data on sales and prices have been circulated and reviewed before the meeting so that the managers could focus on future actions during the meeting.

Enter their boss, the VP of Sales.

VP, Sales:… (hassled and short of breath) Sorry to be late as I was (choose option-1, option-2,…option-n)… What are we doing here?

Manager-1: We are finalizing our future pricing strategy to respond to recent increase in competition.

VP, Sales: Really?! Wow, I thought we were to talk about marketing campaigns here…anyway, what’s with the prices? I thought we already had the lowest prices in the market.

Manager-2: The detailed price analysis and trends are in the reports circulated last week. Clearly, we are …..

VP, Sales: Sorry guys, I am not up to speed on what is going on. Could I (hurray!) catch up on what has been going on?

Manager-3 (stunned face): Two weeks ago, our competitor cut the prices of many of their SKU’s by 20% and also offered multi-buy discounts. We are……

VP, Sales: Sorry to interrupt you but could you bring up the slides on how we have fared against competition over the past (fill in the blanks) years?

The meeting ends with the VP running off to another meeting to catch up on an unspecified agenda.

To the seasoned practitioner, catching up is limitless in its scope. You don’t need to stay on topic to catch up. For example, during a sales meeting such as the one mentioned above, in addition to asking questions on anything about prices and competition, you could also inquire about new products design; or transportation issues; or recruitment matters that some managers have reported in the past few weeks; even a company picnic that one of the regions had the previous week.

Catching up often has the effect of being a tête-à-tête for one but causes utter disruption for others and the organization. But, hey! Who can bell the cat!

The Working Lunch

The uninitiated rookie in the corporate world is unequal to the task of understanding the basics of what a working lunch entails. It could take years, even decades, to master the nuances and exploit the potential of this concept.

On the face of it, the term ‘working lunch’ could be mistaken to simply mean a way for the busy executives to continue working while they incidentally take care of keeping their biological engine refueled. On closer observation, it would become clear that nothing is farther from the truth. For the sake of clarity, it should be mentioned here that the act of two (or more) executives unobtrusively munching away on their sandwiches while discussing the terms of their proposal to a client does not constitute a working lunch. If it is not visible to the larger audience in the office, it fails the test.

A working lunch just does not happen – it is always carefully planned, many times weeks ahead of time. It is as much a part of any meeting agenda as the official topic of discussion itself. It needs to be carefully timed and scheduled after taking into consideration various people who will be arriving late for the meeting (obviously, flying in from another city/country) and those who will be leaving early (for the same reason, in reverse). The duration of the working lunch cannot be seen to be excessive – the ideal duration is zero minutes – though in reality it can be extended as long as it takes to finish all tete-a-tete’s that invariably start during a working lunch.

The menu for a working lunch cannot be taken lightly either. Secretaries and executive assistants are known to have lost their jobs (or received promotions) on their ability to pick the right items and flavors. The menu should, simultaneously, be tasty, healthy, sumptuous, nutritious and exhibit other characteristics to dispel any doubts of being commonplace. ‘Unhealthy’ drinks such as Coke should be included so as to enable executives to pick tonic water and green tea.

What happens during these working lunches makes an interesting study. Discussion regarding lunch starts right at the beginning of the meeting when important presentations are halted to review the lunch menu that is circulated. Significant time is spent on asking for items, such as specific salad dressings, that are not on the menu. Finally, the secretary walks away with a lunch order that has very little in common with the original menu. Fulfilling this order keeps many staff members in the office busy the whole morning as they head out in different directions to various restaurants.

After much anticipation, and sometimes nail-biting wait times, lunch arrives. Executives open their presents, sorry lunch boxes, and take a satisfying bite, making all the hard work of listening to various presentations worthwhile. Various topics, quite unrelated to the meeting or the business on hand are initiated and the ensuing discussions continue long after the scheduled lunch break is over. The beauty of the situation is that, as all the executives are still technically in the meeting, everything looks official and ‘business as usual’ to the outside world!

In today’s world of virtual working, working lunches are a great way of getting executives into the office. However, if you look at the overall gain/loss of productivity of the people involved (don’t forget all the administrative staff working hard to make these lunches happen), especially as compared to going out to a nearby restaurant, you might well be in for a surprise!

The Remote Office

“Could you please organize a conference call tomorrow morning to discuss this?”

This one statement perhaps exemplifies today’s office better than any other description. Welcome to the world of the remote office!

One of the most significant and visible results of the revolution in communication technology in the past two decades is the concept of people at all levels in any organization working from home or out of any office location of their choice – fondly referred to as ‘the virtual office’ in corporate jargon. This, in turn, has resulted in the proliferation of the ubiquitous conference call (companies who identified the need for this early and invested in the business of connecting people are laughing their way to the bank!). Let us get inside such a call and enjoy the fun.

The COO of Company-X, a consumer products company, is informed by his executive assistant, Jane, that monthly reports from various departmental heads are not arriving in time. In the erstwhile world of simple organizations, the COO would have walked across the floor to his direct subordinates’ offices and told them to be prompt in the future – or sent out a one-paragraph, paper memo to the relevant executives. But, this is the connected world where there is no place for simplicity and therefore the COO asks Jane to organize, yes you guessed it right, a conference call.

Thus starts a 2-day process of ‘synchronizing’ calendars while Jane jumps through multiple hoops and systems to scan through the calendars and schedules of people – including calling the secretaries of several executives who either don’t maintain or share their calendars. After much effort and nail-biting tension, Jane strikes gold! There is a precious slot of 30 minutes 3 weeks from today when all the concerned people have no engagements, I mean, other conference calls! Of course, being a ‘virtual’ company, the time slots extend anywhere from 4 AM to midnight in their respective time zones but the executives are anyway expected to be time-agnostic.

If by now you are heaving a sigh of relief and saying ‘mission accomplished’ to yourself, you obviously have no clue as to how these things work. Over the next three weeks, there is a flurry of phone calls, emails and other modes of communication between various parties trying to rearrange the time for the call to accommodate more pressing emergencies such as, yes you guessed right this time, attending calls on more important issues such as rearranging office furniture and finalizing the cafeteria menu. Finally a compromise is arrived at by moving the start time of the call by 2 minutes and some executives agreeing to the supreme sacrifice of excusing themselves 3 minutes early from their previous calls. In the meanwhile Jane, the COO’s assistant, of course, has had no time to attend to mundane matters such as getting her boss to sign customer contracts.

It is D-day and D-time minus 10 minutes. Jane has initiated the call and is desperately trying to have the COO get off the previous call. She is petrified that if for any reason this call should get canceled by the COO, she would have gone back to square-1, like going down the largest snake in a game of snakes & ladders. She is lucky and the COO gets on to the call just one minute late.

The call then proceeds as follows:

COO: Good morning everyone …….

(loud noise)

Exec-1: ….sorry folks, I am at the airport boarding my flight; I will put myself on mute now.

COO: That is OK – safe travels. How are the others doing?

(….detailed descriptions of various school games and charity events……)

15 minutes later……

COO: OK, let us get down to business. Why are the monthly reports not coming in on time?

Exec-2: I always email it one day ahead of the deadline.

Exec-3: So do I.

Exec-4: What is the deadline? I thought it was the fifth of the month. I always email it on the 4th evening.

(……. more chatter and explanation of when the report is sent by various other executives….)

Exec-10: Isn’t the information in the monthly report the same as the contents of the flash report that is sent at the end of the last week of the month?

(…..murmurs and shuffling of papers….)

Exec-1: Sorry I need to drop off now, as the flight is ready to take off. I will catch up later. Bye.

COO: We are almost out of time and I know that many of you have other calls to get on to. Let me ask Jane to organize a conference call to review the flash report. Thank you all.

Thus concludes another chapter in the endless book of communication that defines the world of remote offices!

Inside A Corporate Meeting

It was the day of the meeting to finalize the company’s annual plans. It was the culmination of many days (and nights) of tireless work by the underlings. A lot was hanging in the balance. Serious decisions influencing, if not actually affecting, many people’s lives were in the offing. Senior executives from various locations and divisions were expected to be in attendance. No detail was too small to be ignored as far as preparations were concerned. It was show time!

Executives and secretaries (sometimes difficult to tell apart based on what they were doing!) alike were busy weeks before D-Day – synchronizing calendars, canceling and rescheduling other less important activities (such as discussions and signatures on customer contracts!). Countless emails, text messages and phone calls had been exchanged to grab those micro gaps in time when any given executive required for the meeting did not have other commitments on the calendar. Lunch and snack menus had been summoned from top restaurants and gone through in excruciating detail before finalizing precisely what would be served when during the meeting.

Many an intern and lower level staff had slogged for weeks, to the exclusion of attention to any operational work related to the company, over powerpoint slides and spreadsheets giving the best possible picture of their department’s performance and plans. Colors and fonts on the slides had been changed on an hourly basis, depending on the mood of the boss in charge. A substantial quantum of corollary (read, irrelevant) information had been included to provide the ‘broad’ picture. The Internet had been relentlessly scoured to gather all statistics and information to support the required point of view.

On the day of the meeting, the increased level of hustle and bustle was noticeable not just in the corridors of the office floor where the main conference room was located, but around the usual places of office socialization – the ubiquitous water cooler, the break room, the photocopier and, of course, the washroom. Secretaries and others were frantically completing the photocopying of mountains of paper copies of slides, spreadsheets and printouts from Internet pages before making binders for each executive attending the meeting. Trollies with coffee, tea, water and an assortment of cookies were rolled into the conference room.

Some fifteen minutes before the start time, with about 5-6 attendees having arrived early (as they had flown cross-country and were suffering from jet lag), it looked like the meeting would actually take place.  John, the Director who had the misfortune to have been nominated the coordinator for this important meeting, rushed into the room with a folder with a dozen post-it’s sticking out and started dialing the phone in the middle of the room to open the conference call line for people attending remotely. Not being very familiar with the newly implemented technology he encountered considerable difficulty in getting past the robotic message that repeatedly informed him that his access code was invalid. By now, several more attendees had arrived and promptly aligned themselves into two groups – one that was busy catching up with one another on how things had been since they last met and the other that tried to assist John overcome the technical hurdles. It was now 10 minutes past the scheduled start time and, not unusually, the CEO has not arrived yet. Then, John, tethering on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he noticed the CEO enter the room, hit the ‘#’ key on the phone in one last and desperate attempt and was rewarded with the merciful message, “you are now connected to the conference”.

Then began the customary round of introductions. This was characterized by a number of people in the room mumbling under their breath, defeating the purpose of introductions, and the people on the phone not knowing what the expected sequence for talking was, resulting in repeated deadlocks and silence on the line even as the phone speaker volumes were adjusted many times. John, sweating profusely by now, was thankful when the introduction of the 30 odd people was over He then put up the meeting agenda on the screen.

This signaled the beginning of a host of presentations by various departmental heads, complete with multidimensional charts and graphs with innovative axes. The more adventurous executives even resorted to short video clips, involving their dogs, to drive home their points.  Information presented on the complexity of the business operations of the company was so mind boggling that a novice observer could easily have been excused for thinking, “how does this company run amidst such impossible odds?!”.

As the meeting continued, to escape the onslaught of numbers and statistics, many of the attendees resorted to downing several cups of coffee, tea and soft drinks (how they wished for access to some sterner stuff!), comfort breaks and, of course, the innumerable interactions with their smart phones.

The eagerly awaited grand finale came and the CEO, who seemed to have been completely oblivious to what was going on up to that point in time, stood up to speak. His speech was the shortest and consisted of these few sentences: “Thank you one and all. I have enjoyed all your impressive presentations but here is the bottom line for the coming year – I want sales to be up by 5% and there will be no increase in any costs. Wish you all a very happy new year. Let us get to work”.

Later, when the stunned and exhausted executives were headed to the airport to catch their flights home, they could not but wonder whether their presentations and inputs had anything to do with the CEO’s final directive. Thus came to an end another expensive meeting to justify a foregone conclusion!