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Death by Meeting

Death by Meeting 死亡會議

This is Patrick Lencioni’s new book published in 2004, again a fiction and management book. I think this one, for the story, is better written than his previous books. The description of the characters and the scenes in the story are more interesting and with more depth.

The story is about a company, having been acquired, facing its new boss. It sensed a death threat by the man from headquarters. The white knight who came to the rescue was a temporary administrative assistant to the CEO. Seems to be a proper EO job and I therefore call him the EO.

The lethal aspect of meeting has two meanings in the book.

First, meetings are the most important activities of an organization. All major decisions are made, strategies are formed, actions are planned during meetings. If the meetings are not effective, they will lead to the death of the organization. This was exactly what happened in the story, that staff meetings were boring and ineffective and did not came up with clear direction for everybody.

Second, the impending meeting to be attended by the man from headquarters would mean life and death for the CEO. He would be assessed on whether the meeting was really so bad as to affect the company, and if so, that would mean death for his career.

The story proceeded to saving the meeting, from the insight of the EO. He drew inspiration from his academic studies on film and television and compared meetings with headline news, television series and movies.

Drama – for meetings to be interesting, there needs to be drama and conflict. The EO suggested the use of the skills of script writers and directors, and compared the conducting of a meeting to making a good movie. The first 10 minutes should be used to set up the drama and suspense, and to focus the attention and interest of members. Then the chairman would mine for conflict and expose all different views. Meetings are better than movies as there is real-time interaction instead of passive reception of information. The chairman would encourage constructive ideological conflicts and arguments before coming up with a decision.

Contextual structure – The other fatal mistake of meetings is the lack of contextual structure, i.e. a meeting stew of everything that smothers the important issues. Drawing analogy to television and movies, the EO suggested that there should be different types of meetings dedicated to specific purposes:

1. Daily check-in for 5 minutes similar to daily headline news which people watch briefly for snapshots of information.

2. Weekly tactical meeting for 1 hour same as sitcom and crime drama that people watch weekly for short stories.

3. Monthly strategic meeting which lasts for 2 hours as a movie for detailed discussion of a particular strategy or a complete story from beginning to end.

4. Quarterly off-site review for two days like mini-series which draws people’s attention for a longer period of time.

A remark in the book I like is the myth of too many meetings. Interesting and effective meetings will not waste time but instead save time. Lencioni points out that very often sneaker time is not accounted for as consumption of resources. They are the time spent by managers outside the meetings just to find out what others are doing, clarifying actions, clearing doubts. The matrix of a large number of managers consumes a huge amount of sneaker time. If the meetings make effective and clear decisions with all stakeholders present, a lot of sneaker time will be saved.