Death by Meeting

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business
by Patrick Lencioni

We’ve all been there — and would have given anything to be elsewhere! Meetings without purpose, without interest, without relevance. Painful distractions from our work, our service, and our lives.

Patrick Lencioni uses his effective and engaging “fable” approach to identify solutions that go beyond proper seating, tight agendas, and good room lighting.

The fable centers on a small company in the process of transitioning to being a wholly-owned subsidiary of a larger corporation. The good news is that everyone, including the leadership team, will retain their jobs and salaries. In addition, stock options have the potential to make the employees a lot of money.

The bad news is that the acquiring company’s representatives have noticed problems with the basically successful firm, especially apparent during the firm’s management team’s weekly staff meetings.

Enter Will, the son of a friend of the firm’s founder. He is hired as the temporary executive assistant for the founder and takes it upon himself to figure out why staff meetings are so awful and what to do to fix it. If it’s not fixed, the new corporation will make some very unpleasant changes when the acquisition is completed.

Will’s background in film and television holds the key. What makes a meeting successful are many of the same things that make a film or TV show successful. Drama, including real conflict between the players and real consequences for action, is one key. Another key is matching the script to the expectations of the audience. There’s a time for feature films, a time for cartoons, and a time for TV sitcoms. But no one goes to a movie theater for a TV sitcom, and putting a cartoon in the middle of a full-length film would be jarring for the audience.

Lencioni proposes a model for meeting design that includes four types of meetings, each for different purposes, with different durations, etc. Rather than subjecting everyone to a “meeting stew” of all types of agendas rolled into one format, he suggests segmenting the agendas (e.g., schedule & program updates, operational assessment, strategic planning, etc.) and keeping to a discipline that keeps the agendas aligned with the meeting types.

Making the models work requires significant buy-in and trust from team members that their needs will be properly addressed, their contributions will be respected, and, most importantly, that honest conflict related to organizational objectives and activities is encouraged — not just tolerated — by all leaders.

It’s easy to say, but hard to do. However, for organizations where leaders strive to address “death by meeting” by using a new model like Lencioni’s, the dividends are huge in terms of productivity, flexibility, adaptability, and morale.