On Making a Simple Problem Insoluble

Sefton Davies

Some years ago, I sat on a committee that had been meeting monthly for several years.� During one meeting I happened to glance at my watch.� It was 2.30 p.m.. What seemed like an hour later I looked at it again. It said 2.45 p.m. I reflected that this was my life ticking away. The committee had made no decisions and had the same agenda each time we met.� So I got up, made my apologies, walked out and handed in my resignation from my job. That was the beginning of the most creative and fruitful period of my professional life.

I tell this (true) story because it illustrates my feelings about many meetings. They are wasteful of time and energy, they are boring and they achieve very little. Yet meetings are the lifeblood of organisations. So how can they be improved so that they become interesting, productive and worthwhile?

Why have meetings?

Meetings, as opposed to social gatherings or teaching situations (seminars, workshops, etc.), have two functions:

  1. To present information which cannot be transmitted by other means, e.g. memos, newsletters or on a one-to-one basis. Such briefing meetings can be short, since participation need be concerned only with questions of clarification. The great advantage of such meetings is that information can be disseminated quickly to a large number of people with the assurance that it has been received.�
  2. To make decisions. This is the major reason for meetings. Although decisions can be made unilaterally, participation is a feature of effective management because it enables the whole creativity of the organisation to be utilised, it motivates staff by giving them a share in management processes and it develops skills which are applicable in other fields of management.

So if you have no worthwhile information to impart to a large number of people, or have no decisions to make, don't hold meetings.���

Briefing meetings

Information needs to be disseminated, although it is my belief that far too much information flows in many organisations leading to information overload, where members are inundated with paper or where the same statistical information is requested from a number of different sources. Such 'infomania' can lead to staff ignoring important information in the welter of useless material which lands on their desks, in their pigeon-holes or on their computers.��

Take a long, hard look at the amount of information which flows within your organisation and:

  1. Decide which is essential ― all the rest can be deleted.
  2. Decide who needs to know and circulate only to them. A copy can be posted somewhere for the remainder of the staff to read if they wish. Stop sending everything to everybody.
  3. Put someone in charge of communications with the power to co-ordinate requests for information.�� Charge that person with reducing such requests to a minimum.

Where important information needs to be disseminated to a large number of people, briefing meetings are an excellent way of ensuring that staff receive information and, since they can ask questions, understand it.� For the most part, these meetings should be short and frequent, and some organisations have a daily meeting of just ten minutes or so for this purpose.��

Where more complex matters are concerned, e.g. explanation of policy decisions, clearly there must be longer sessions but they should also be structured differently.� An excellent arrangement is to provide each member with a short paper digest of essential information prior to the meeting, to deliver the information orally in order to explain / emphasise important points, then to allow the audience to discuss it in small groups prior to a question and answer session in which queries and comments can be received.�

Briefing sessions are largely one-way channels to disseminate material which has already been agreed and, although there should be opportunity for feedback from the audience, it is a sign of bad management if such feedback contains any ideas not already solicited in the decision-making process.� The need for discussion is therefore limited, and briefing sessions should not become prolonged or disputative if management has done its job of consultation properly.

To summarise:

  1. For day-to-day matters, hold regular short briefing sessions daily or weekly.� Confine your agenda to matters of fact, e.g. calendar items, updating statistical matter, requests for information.
  2. Important policy matters are best dealt with in business meetings (see below), but it is wise to involve staff in consultation; for example, by circulating formative documents and seeking written responses from individuals or groups.��
  3. When decisions have been finalised, circulate them to all staff, either individually or through their constituency groups, in advance of a briefing meeting.
  4. At a briefing meeting, briefly outline the raison d'etre of the decisions and possibly arrange small-group discussion before answering any questions and responding to comments.
  5. Do not enter into any debate ― this should have preceded the meeting.���

Business meetings

The purpose of business meetings is to make decisions. If you do not have a decision to make, don't hold a meeting.

Decisions are choices between alternative solutions to a problem. The process of decision-making is therefore something like this:

  1. Know your problem. This appears to be self-evident, yet I frequently encounter organisations� that have restricted their awareness of their problems by making assumptions or by jumping to conclusions; for example, one was concerned that their interpersonal relations were poor when, in reality, the problem was that they were not getting the results they wanted and the reasons went far beyond interpersonal relations. Problems lie in the results you are getting, so start there and identify what you are dissatisfied with.
  2. Collect all the information you can about the unsatisfactory results you are getting. At this stage many people start jumping in with their own explanations, so discipline yourself to avoid that and to focus on a realistic and comprehensive examination of the facts concerning the problem. It is tempting to ignore facts which are critical of oneself or of the organisation itself, and a sign of a sick organisation is its unwillingness to accept its own weaknesses. One solution is to seek the opinions of those outside the organisation, who are more objective and therefore more honest.
  3. Brainstorm all possible solutions to the problem. Brainstorming is only successful, however, if the participants free their unconscious minds and feel able, without criticism, to generate as many solutions as possible, however absurd some of them may appear. In my experience, some of the most bizarre solutions have proved to have considerable value.� So observe the golden rules of brainstorming ― no comment (including laughter) and no discussion until all possible solutions have been recorded.
  4. Decide which solution is the 'best fit',� remembering that there is no perfect solution, and have the courage to implement it.

Such a process requires a format which differs from many of the meetings I observe in organisations, where the purpose seems to be to talk about problems rather than to generate solutions.� To be successful, a business meeting needs:

There needs to be an appropriate agenda

The agenda should be published sufficiently far in advance of the meeting and contain sufficient information for all participants to be able to consider how they can best contribute to success.� It should also:

  1. State the venue of the meeting and its starting and ending times, which should be strictly adhered to.�� Never have an open-ended meeting, which only encourages people to waste time.
  2. Have only sufficient business for the time available, which may mean postponing non-essential items to a later meeting.� Such editing implies the existence of a body (often called a 'steering committee') authorised to select items for the agenda.
  3. Contain all the business to be considered, i.e. there should be no item labelled 'Any Other Business' (A.O.B). as it does not allow members time to consider the issues raised and can cause rushed, and therefore ill-considered, decisions to be made.
  4. Contain only proposals for decision-making, i.e all items should be capable of ending with a definite decision being made. This requires a firm statement of proposed action, e.g. 'It is proposed that a Congregational Council be established with the following functions and structures ... .'� Each proposal should state who will introduce the item.
  5. Every proposal needs to be supported by a paper setting out its main recommendations and a raison d'etre, which should be concise (no more than two sides of A4 paper) yet comprehensive, i.e. it should hide no essential information. Such papers should be circulated to all committee members in sufficient time to allow them to read them and consider their response prior to the meeting.
  6. Have a short item for information-giving to allow urgent notices to be presented. These briefing items should allow time for questions but no discussion.

There needs to be an agreed procedure

Meetings need to be disciplined if they are to achieve their ends economically and harmoniously, and an agreed procedure is essential to this.�� The most important aspects are:

  1. It is absolutely essential that meetings should be conducted in a manner which encourages the utilisation of the total creativity of the group, and this can only be achieved if members feel secure in contributing their honestly-held beliefs. In order for this to happen, the group needs to establish norms of behaviour which enable efficient but caring conduct of business. Norms cannot be imposed ― they can only be agreed. However, here are some suggestions for discussion:
    *          for the purposes of the meeting only, all members have the same rights and responsibilities, regardless of their status within the organisation. If the senior manager is concerned that decisions might be made for which (s)he cannot accept responsibility and accountability, it should be made clear that (s)he has the right to veto such decisions. �
    *           the contributions of individual members will not be referred to outside the meeting place except with the member's agreement, or where the contribution is minuted. This is important to safeguard free speech without recrimination.
    *          all contributions are valued, even if disagreed wth. They will be listened to and responded to, if only by the chairperson.
    *          members will not interrupt each other.
    *          members will exercise restraint in the length of their contributions and will accept the chairperson's ruling on this.
    * Once norms are agreed, all members should pledge to support them and to draw attention to any breach.
  2. Meetings should start and finish promptly. My experience is that starting a meeting on time, with several members missing is an excellent way of impressing the need for punctuality. Similarly, to end on time impresses the need to avoid wasting time ― a major source of dissatisfaction in most of the meetings I have attended.
  3. No time should be allowed for members to read documents. These should have been issued with the agenda and, if some members have not bothered to read them, they, and not their more conscientious colleagues, should be at a disadvantage.
  4. The most important items should be at the top of the agenda, but there needs to be a timetable which allows all items to be covered in the time allocated.� Some published indication of how long each item is allowed is helpful so long as the chairperson is� effective in timekeeping, but one needs to be flexible so as to avoid depriving members of adequate time to reach wise decisions. A more realistic device is to recognise that each item will almost certainly take longer than planned and to restrict the number of agenda items:� if the meeting finishes early as a result, nobody will complain!
  5. Each item should have the supporting paper mentioned above, and since all members will have seen it in advance,� it need only be briefly introduced. Time should be allocated for questions of a factual nature, i.e., for clarification, and then the matter should be opened for discussion.
  6. Flexibility is a great virtue in organising meetings, and you should not be afraid to vary the format, e.g. if the meeting is of a committee or working party charged with producing a discussion document for a larger constituency, such as a senior management team or even the whole staff, it may need to explore a range of possibilities before formulating a policy recommendation:� in such a case it would be advisable to use at least part of the time available for brainstorming, as outlined in the previous section.��
  7. Some limit on the length and frequency of contributions is helpful. I once participated in an exercise where each member of a committee was given tokens with which they 'bought' speaking time; when their tokens were all spent they could no longer participate. Some members ran out early and could not contribute to items they desperately wanted to influence ― it was a very powerful lesson in the need for self-discipline, and they were noticeably less dominating thereafter.� This was an extreme measure, however, and it is better to agree simple rules, such as each member can make only two contributions to a debate on any agenda item, or that no member shall speak for more than three minutes to an agenda item. Strong chairing of the meeting is, however, the most effective means of ensuring economical practice.
  8. At the end of each item, any decision should be recorded verbatim, together with a statement about who will be responsible for further action and any deadlines they must meet.
  9. On completion of the business, the meeting should end. If you have managed to finish ahead of time, so much the better; some chairmen feel guilty about such success and try to prolong the meeting!���

There need to be follow-up procedures

When the meeting is over, you will need arrangements for informing staff of any decisions and someone must monitor progress towards implementing these decisions.�� To do this, you need:

  1. Minutes of all decisions made. Do not attempt to record individual contributions to the discussion, since it is very difficult to ensure accuracy and balance and time can be wasted while people challenge the wording. Restrict minutes to an accurate record of the wording of decisions made, persons responsible for action and deadlines to be met.� Minutes must be circulated as soon as possible to all committee members, but it is advisable to post a copy in a convenient place for others to refer to. Some members object to publication of minutes outside the committee, but I believe it is important in the interest of openess and participation.
  2. Someone who is responsible for ensuring that persons or groups charged with implementing decisions do their work efficiently and effectively.�� Where meetings are not frequent, and there are long intervals between them, this is particularly important.
  3. A place on the agenda of each meeting for reporting progress towards the implementation of decisions made. Such reports can be of very short duration.

The functions of officers

Any committee needs at least the two offices of chairperson and secretary. Their functions are often� misunderstood, and it is worth examining them here.


The chairperson should not be, as is often believed, the most powerful member of a committee, i.e. the person with the greatest ability to influence decisions. To give the powers of chairperson to someone with a vested interest in a particular outcome from a meeting is not the best means of ensuring effective participation and it is therefore better to choose a chairperson with limited personal interest in the decisions made but who is effective at co-ordinating the work of others. The work of a chairperson should, therefore, be:

  1. To ensure the economical and effective use of time. To do so means specifying how long the committee has for debating a topic and ensuring that the time is not exceeded. This entails minimising irrelevant contributions, one of the greatest problems of all meetings.
  2. To ensure fair opportunity for participation. This does not necessarily mean equality, since some members will legitimately have more to say on some topics, but it does mean enabling the participation of all members who have something relevant to contribute.� Such helpful procedures imply a concern for people, and a good chairperson will protect inexperienced members, help the less articulate, restrict the over-verbose, encourage the timid and control any aggressive or hurtful behaviour.�
  3. To help in the orderly transaction of business. This involves such activities as rigorous timekeeping, adjudicating on matters of procedure, summarising progress to date, suggesting means of proceeding and ensuring clarity� in the wording of agreed decisions.
  4. To help in the orderly transaction of business. This involves such activities as rigorous timekeeping, adjudicating on matters of procedure, summarising progress to date, suggesting means of proceeding, ensuring clarity in the wording of agreed decisions, etc.

The secretary

The secretary is there to record minutes, although (s)he may also be given responsibility for providing information on previous decisions, any regulations relating to the topic, etc. S(he) should normally not make any contribution to the debate, and is often, therefore, chosen from administrative staff. It is essential that a secretary is good at accurate recording of decisions and can write succinctly and clearly.

Other members

Other members play process roles according to their personalities and propensities. It is not the purpose of this article to explore these, but reference might be made to the literature on this topic, e.g. Belbin or Honey. [1]


In this article I have tried to indicate means whereby you can improve the quality of your meetings by making them more efficient and productive. The rest is up to you. From now on look critically at all aspects of your committee structures and procedure and cut out waste, pomposity and inefficiency. You may not succeed in making meetings your favourite activity, but at least you can make them worthwhile. Good luck, but remember that a camel is a horse designed by a committee!


Beblin R. Meredith, Management Teams, Heinemann.

�Honey Peter, Face to Face, Spectrum.