Don't just stand there, hold a meeting

July 27, 1999|By Shawn Hubler

CAN we meet?

Can we meet and meet and meet and meet and meet?

Can we meet in public boards and private commissions, on cable TV and in no-comment executive sessions, around speaker phones, over working breakfasts, working lunches, working breaks, working dinners, working snacks?

Can we meet? Can we meet off site, meet on site, meet over the Web site, meet at a pre-meeting meeting? How about one of those all-day retreat meetings? How about a pre-meeting meeting before the meeting at the all-day retreat? Can we meet in teams, groups, smaller groups? Groups so small that the team leader is also the team?

Oh, let's meet. Let's have a government meeting. They're the professionals. They meet for a living. So let's meet as the meeters do. Let's have subcommittees and parliamentary procedure. And hearings. That get continued. Until the cows come home.

Let's have a "town hall." Never mind that in the few towns that still exist, no one has uttered the words "town hall" since about 1955. Let's pretend we actually feel neighborly toward, say, that nut at the microphone who keeps demanding another three minutes. What's he talking about, anyhow?

Or let's meet with our real neighbors in our neighborhood association. Or do a parents meeting. Or -- hey! -- a neighborhood meeting on "parenting"! Call in a facilitator and a consultant, find out why you can't even reproduce now without someone recommending a strategic plan and a mission statement. Get told to pencil in family meetings more regularly.

You can tell a lot about a society by its infatuations, by its minor tics and incremental trends. Have you noticed the creeping ubiquity of signs and questionnaires demanding, "How Am I Doing?" Or the way that the world -- your workplace and mine included -- has gone hip-deep in task forces and focus groups?

So we are now up to here with the world's oldest stall tactic -- meetings. And although there may have been too many since the first quorum of early man, America's compulsive calls to order now approach a kind of cultural psychosis.

A meeting epidemic

The government bursts with commissions, the workplace teems with teams, the school booster clubs powwow over their bylaws into the night. An epidemic of meetingitis is upon us, and there's no sign of adjournment. So much talk, so little real accomplishment.

The private sector is similarly afflicted. Last year, the Los Angeles Convention Center alone logged more than 303,000 meeting participants, a sevenfold attendance increase at business meetings, religious meetings, seminars, etc., from the year before.

Holding a captive audience

A company in Orange County, Calif., holds daylong meetings on boats so no one can leave early, and a company in Texas has a monthlong waiting list for conference rooms.

Wastin' away in meetingville.

Steve Bailey, president of the National Management Association, which follows workplace trends, says the plaintive wail of "too many meetings" is second only to "too much work" in the litany of worker complaints he hears.

Marty Cohen of the Work in America Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on "the link between employee involvement and productivity," says that one of the newer fads, meetingwise, is to remove the chairs from a room, on the premise that the meeting will end sooner if no one gets comfortable.

But of all the expert takes on meetingitis, perhaps the most expert is the famed wisecrack by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith: Meetings, he wrote 30 years ago, "are indispensable when you don't want to do anything."

Shawn Hubler is a Los Angeles Times columnist. His e-mail address:

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