Mastering Meetings

Being a medical officer at the same hospital for the past 5 years, I have been ‘invited’ into meetings of varying degrees of importance. As a ranking officer, I was the Head of the Incident Reporting committee. By reason of being one of the ‘invited’, I would spend up to 2 hours (on average), sometimes longer than necessary in a windowless room surrounded by staff members. What made it worse was that most of these meetings would end up going nowhere and we would leave the room feeling, “What was the agenda of the meeting again?”

What was the agenda of the meeting again?

A meeting at my hospital would most likely follow this routine:

  1. Commencement of the meeting by the Hospital Director.
  2. Reading (out loud) the previous meeting’s minutes by the Hospital Director.
  3. Realizing that most of the outstanding problems have not been solved.
  4. Discussing the remedy for the outstanding problems again or at times completely dismissing it.
  5. Get sidetracked when the problems are related to other issues.
  6. Returning to the path when the discussion is going nowhere.
  7. Reading of the current meeting’s agenda.
  8. Discussing the points/issues of the meeting.
  9. Issues left unsolved would be brought forward to the next meeting.
  10. Highlighting of other issues unrelated to the meeting.

I do hope that the Hospital Director or any other meetings’ chairperson could find time to read this piece. Ask yourself, how many overpopulated meetings do you sit through the course of the year? How many meetings get sidetracked? How many lose focus? How many meetings managed to get their points across? It is shocking to find that this is actually the norm and despite having solid proof of it happening in front of us, nothing is being done to change it.

Small Groups of Smart People

This is copied directly from Steve Job’s Apple meeting policy. Most of the meetings I attend are usually populated by staff who are not really there. They offer nothing to the meetings except to fulfill the body count (quota) and most of them could not even come up with a simple solution for their problems, but they sure have a hell lot of problems to highlight (Issue No.10). To me, they are the ‘zombie invites’, no thought process involved but plenty of gurgling sounds.

Zombie Invites. No thought process but plenty of gurgling sounds

What Apple did was to get the most creative minds together in small groups, where everyone in the room should be there for a reason. We need more participants instead of spectators. To do so in my current setting, would be to wean out the useless staff or to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. This require stern enforcement and stepping on plenty of toes, because my hospital loves to cultivate the idea that if you are not invited to a meeting, then you are not suppose to do anything. As if being invited is the key to unlocking unlimited power. It should not be personal, it is just business.

Zealots of Simplicity

Running a hospital is probably akin to running a business. But with such an old institution (28 years), culture has it that the hospital is bigger than any one person and there is also the inadvertent danger of putting an idea at the mercy of a large group of approvers. It is hard to change the mantra, “it is the way we do things here”. I tried it on my committee members, unfortunately, I am often seen as being old enough to be their son, that they would not tolerate being spoken to.

But my failure must not be seen as the be-all and end-all, I would have to figure out another approach and at the same time, apply the small-group principle highlighted above. Try to understand the nature of your business, and you must be prepared to draw the line between too few and too many. If you have to be a zealot, then so be it. As long as the group function as a whole and things get done.

It is hard to change the mantra — it is the way we do things here

There is no hard and fast rule, or a ‘magical’ formula that you can rely on to estimate the number of participants. It did not take Apple days to get to where they are, so be prepared to hunker down and fight the inertia.

More Brains = More Ideas?

Basically, the meetings at my hospital are fundamentally flawed by the notion that the more critical the project, the more people must be thrown in it. It is operating on the fact that more brains lead to more ideas. Another point would be that by having more people in the group, they would act like an insurance policy for the head (eg. Hospital Director). If something fails, everyone will have to shoulder the blame. Pretty convenient.

In my hospital’s situation (see Issues No.3, 4 & 5), most of the time is spent bringing everyone up to speed. Spoon feeding some of them. Reviewing the participant’s work. Offering feedback or the lack of it. At the end of the day, the Director will blame it all on not having the right people for the job. You are the Director, fix it. Populate your small group with smart people, the group will feel appreciated and in turn, eager to take on more work. In our meetings, certain participants get off with just a reprimand and others are under appreciated, complicating the matter at hand.

We are in need of a leader with a talent for keeping teams in focus

We are in need of a leader with a talent for keeping their teams focused on solving the problems and meeting their respective targets. At last count, I think that there are 20-odd sub-committees under the care of the hospital. Maybe I should just read to them Steve Job’s autobiography, extreme and brutal, but hopefully with good results.

Take Home Message

Maybe I should just print this out and paste it on the Meeting Room door:

  1. Throw the unnecessary personnel out. No zombie invites.
  2. Meetings should last preferably 30 minutes to an hour.
  3. Keep it simple, seriously.
  4. Bring ideas, not problems.
  5. Be brutal. Honesty is the best policy.

Any takers?


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