Do We Really Need to Meet Again?

EU leaders are meeting this week to decide whether they should meet again later. How to make ‘meetings about meetings’ useful.

It sounds like something out of a Dilbert cartoon—having a meeting about a meeting—but it happens more often than many leaders want to admit, and this week it’s happening at the highest echelons of government.

Starting Wednesday, leaders in the European Union will be meeting in Austria to decide whether they should have another confab in mid-November. Blame the negotiations over Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU bloc, for the sudden proliferation of such gatherings. This week’s effort will be an additional meeting to the already scheduled regular one for mid-October. The October date is considered too soon to expect any progress in the wrangling over how the EU and United Kingdom will interact with each other after the split.

Although it’s easy to see the whole spectacle as a comical waste of time, experts say pre-meetings can have value—both in the government and at corporate levels. “The three important things to remember about meetings are preparation, preparation, and preparation,” says Andrew Udale, leader of the UK Executive Pay and Governance practice for Korn Ferry. A “meeting about a meeting” is to make sure that everyone gets prepared for the main gathering. In turn, that ensures that no one’s time gets wasted.

The question of who should attend the main gathering should be high on the list of decisions to be made at the pre-meeting. “If you don’t have the right people, you’ll struggle to get the right outcome,” says Udale. Therefore, at the pre-meeting, a list must be made that includes all the key stakeholders who might be affected by any decisions.

Selecting the right people to attend the main meeting can help improve decision-making at the big event. They are the people with the relevant facts or factors, and so their presence helps the decision makers make informed choices. “You have facts, and you reach a conclusion based on the facts,” says Udale. “If you don’t have all the facts you can’t make the right decision.” He notes that this process is not about engineering the decision you desire, but rather making sure that the right decision is made that uses all the available and relevant information.

Setting an agenda for the main meeting at the earlier meeting can help answer any lingering questions about purpose. “If you are going to be utilizing the time of very important people then you want to be sure why you are there,” says Peter Cave-Gibbs, Korn Ferry’s regional market leader for Global Technology Markets in EMEA. “Even if you just get a smaller group together it can help with advance agenda setting,” he says.

In particular, the preplanning can help prioritize what should get discussed and then decided at the meeting. “Unless you have a clear agenda and desired outcomes, then you probably shouldn’t have a meeting,” he says. Of course, there are always lots of decisions to be made in any business, and overloading people in a meeting can be counterproductive. What that means in the business world is that deciding what gets discussed also means deciding what doesn’t. That can help streamline the process and helps progress happen.