Forefront by TSMP: The Ten Commandments of Meetings

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Forefront by TSMP

2 November 2022

The Ten Commandments of Meetings

He was recently featured by the Singapore Academy of Law as one of five lawyers who have used LinkedIn to share insights on workplace and personal issues. This month, Forefront takes a break and lets Adrian Tan, who often writes on LinkedIn with the tagline “if I were king of Singapore”, say his piece about the foundation of work life as we all know it: meetings.

By Adrian Tan

Cover photo credit: TSMP

Every form of unhappiness in the working world can be attributed to one cause: life is short, but meetings are long.

Despite centuries of evolution, the human race continues to be plagued by work meetings which are aimless, dispiriting and overlong. The reason? Incompetent chairpersons.

The ideal chairperson is a hybrid politician/umpire/emcee/relationship manager. The job requires a blend of skills. It’s like being an orchestra conductor – keeping quiet and allowing each musical instrument to shine, in turn.

More often than not, though, the chairperson is simply the most senior person at the meeting. And if there’s one thing we know about senior people, they aren’t good at keeping quiet while allowing others to shine.

How do we fix this? Should we pass a law to send all chairpersons for training? In an ideal world, yes.
But in the real world, the simplest way would be for all chairpersons to follow the Ten Commandments of Meetings. These are time-honoured laws that should be observed by the Chairperson of any meeting.

First Commandment: Thou shalt not meet unless absolutely necessary.
Meetings are an enormous drain of time, attention, and energy. A group of human beings must put everything aside to sit together to decide on something at the same time. That’s a big sacrifice.
The Chairperson shouldn’t ask anyone to make such a sacrifice unless there is something important to discuss in person.
Let’s face it, most issues can be handled by email. Email discussions may often be better because people can take their own time to read materials, ponder on issues and then write a considered response.

Second Commandment: Honour thy agenda.
Before picking a date, or sending out meeting invitations, the Chairperson needs to write down the agenda.
A meeting without a written agenda is just a tea break. The agenda is the heart of any meeting. It must describe the topic to be discussed as clearly as possible.

Third Commandment: Thou shalt schedule an appropriate duration for your meeting.
There is no law that says that meetings must last an hour, or for any specific period. If there is only a simple item to deal with, a meeting could end after 5 minutes.
In fact, Chairpersons should take pride in having quick meetings, and they should be publicly shamed if their meetings overrun the allocated time.

Fourth Commandment: Remember the weekend and public holiday; keep it free.
Some Chairpersons consider work and meetings to be separate types of activities. They then schedule meetings outside working hours, on the pretext that people need to be given time to do their work.
Let’s be clear. Meetings are work events. They should be scheduled during work hours.

Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not invite any person who does not need to be there.
Meetings are exclusive events. The guest list must be select. Invitees should be people who have something to contribute to the meeting.
If in doubt, don’t invite.

Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt be punctual.
Meetings must start on time. Once there’s a quorum, the Chairperson should kick off the meeting and deal with the first agenda item.
What do we do with latecomers? The best punishment is to enter their names into the minutes, like so: “Ah Kow joined the meeting 15 minutes late, with apologies.”

Seventh Commandment: I am thy Chairperson, thou shall have no other Chairpersons before me.
We have all been in meetings where somebody usurps the Chairperson and tries to run the show. That usurper will bring up new issues, delay or protract matters, or derail the discussion in some way.
This is where the Chairperson needs to be firm. The Chairperson needs to call out such behaviour. A clear, “That’s enough, let’s move on to the next agenda item,” will usually be sufficient to put the usurper down.

Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not have AOB.
AOB, or Any Other Business, refers to the final phase of the meeting, where topics not listed in the agenda may be discussed.
Often though, this is what happens: the meeting is reaching a final conclusion. People are messaging loved ones to make dinner plans. Then, someone refers to the AOB and starts to talk. And talk. And talk. Before long, meeting members are held hostage.
So, the danger of AOB is that it often provides a means to hijack a meeting, at a time when few people are paying attention.
My solution? Ban AOB.
Look, AOB is for stuff that isn’t deemed important enough to warrant a place in the agenda proper. That’s why it’s always placed at the end.
Unimportant stuff can be disposed of through email. There shouldn’t be a need to spend any time on a non-agenda item.
As a compromise, the Chairperson can impose a five-minute guillotine on the entire AOB. If the AOB item needs more time than that, then it has to go on the agenda for the next meeting.
Let’s all agree to be allergic to AOB.

Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt end each meeting promptly.
In life, there are many things that are more satisfying when taken slowly.
But meetings aren’t such things. They must end as soon as they can be ended. A good Chairperson knows that meetings are attended by human beings, not robots. Human beings have a short attention span. Beyond 45 minutes, no one is paying any attention.
I used to attend meetings that started before breakfast and ended at midnight. Believe me, by lunchtime, no one was making any useful contribution to the discussion.

Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness in the meeting minutes.
Even after the meeting is concluded, the Chairperson’s job isn’t over. The Chairperson’s final duty is to read and approve the meeting minutes. This should be carried out promptly, while memories are fresh. If necessary, the Chairperson should refer to audio recordings of the meeting, to verify who said what.
Meeting minutes must be concise: they need only show who said what, and who voted for what. And when it comes to the “who said what” part, we need to focus only on the important bits. Cut out any side discussions.
Once the Chairperson clears the draft minutes, they should be circulated to attendees.

And there you have it: the Ten Commandments of Meetings. So long as you obey them, you will be blessed with productive and efficient meetings, forever and ever, amen.