Challenging the Culture of Meetings at Work – 17 October 2018

This week the Top Companies South Africa (TCSA) challenges the shareholders and senior management to introspect about the true DNA of meetings. We discuss this in view of the recent jobs summit and the urgent need to grow the South African economy.

The results of the 2018 Top Companies South Africa will be published on 27 October 2018. By this time scores of pointless meetings  about meetings will have been held.

Are meetings work? Or an excuse for work? To answer this let us define work as an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result. The TCSA team believes that many meetings achieve a purpose, but not a result. Let us define purpose. It is the reason for which something is done or created, or for which something exists. This means that if the purpose of a meting is to discuss the purpose of the previous meeting, then the purpose of this present meeting would have been achieved by discussing the purpose of the previous meeting.

Therefore, the result is that the meeting was discussed. But what is a result? It is a consequence or outcome caused by something else. Now if the purpose of a meeting is to create jobs, the result should be the creation of new jobs. Right? Or at least to cause something that will give rise to something else that will create jobs, eventually. Right? So, a meeting must be a catalyst for a storm that will create jobs no matter how many other links are involved in the chain.

The author believes that meetings have become a pathological obsession and have come to have a life of their own. Many of them are a management perk.  Catering companies and entertainers are usually hired to look after the interests of those attending meetings, and to create a façade that such an occasion warrants a celebration.

Many meetings are held in an atmosphere where the actual connection with the purpose, say of creating jobs, is at best abstract. Meetings have become work, or an end in themselves. The purpose of the meeting is to have a meeting. The meeting is the cause, the activity and the result. Meetings are held mostly by people who do not or cannot serve customers directly, or directly produce products that customers want. They spend the whole day hidden away in boardrooms and conference centres where the customers cannot find them. Whenever there is a problem with a product or service, it is the lesser paid staff members, that have not earned the right to attend this addictive cocktail of meetings that have to face the music.

This is not new information. There are two types of people. Those that talk, and those that do. The doers work, or cause results that stakeholders want. The talkers talk about the customers and the doers, and cause more discussion about the workers and customers. It is an old adage that a dog that barks does not bite. Meetings are barking empires. They usually have no bite as far as the result sought by the end customer is concerned. The TCSA team believes that one of the main reasons the economy is not growing is because of the increasing number of people that are attending meetings, and the declining number of those that produce customer friendly outcomes.

It is from this angle that one can understand the angst of trade unions who more often than not have their members retrenched first in turbulent times while those that swell the ranks of meetings close ranks to protect their jobs. The TCSA team believes that professional attendees of meetings, also know as senior management or executive committees should be the ones to give way in hard economic times firstly because their salaries are higher and secondly because they arguably  have no direct impact on company output.

Another reason for failed job creation is the lack of decision making appetite by those that regularly  attend meetings. A 2013 management study by Plus 94 showed that the biggest corporate handicap in South Africa was problem solving skills, and in particular lack of decisiveness. This can be exemplified where existing natural,  financial and manpower resources are underutilised, and budgets get rolled over to the next year, or effectively, lost.

This is the worst curse of meetings. Instead of leading to speedy decisions and problem resolution, they increase complexity and give rise to a protracted decision making culture. The economy cannot grow when decision making is slower than the cost of the salaries of those that have to make the decisions. A higher monthly salary should indicate an ability to make rapid decisions during the course of the month to stay ahead of the expenses. Economic decline is when costs associated with the decision makers come in thick and fast and their decisions come in thin and slow.

The Top Companies of South Africa, in the wake of the current economic uncertainty, need to be reviewing if they are getting value for money from those members of the executive that have convinced themselves that attending meetings, as a form of work,  is beneficial.