Audit Advantage: Meetings - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Audit Advantage: MeetingsMeetings…the bread and butter of our business; the glue that holds together our organisations; grist to the mill for each and every one of us! Enough of the metaphors; we all have them, mostly we groan at the thought of them, but why do meetings cause such anguish, frustration and plain old exasperation?

 “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”
Thomas Sewell, Ever Wonder Why? And Other Controversial Essays

 

I love them. But I don’t love all meetings. I have sat through too many, watching the clock, pondering on the purpose of life and indeed the purpose of the meeting. When meetings have a clear purpose, a measurable objective, a perceptible outcome, they can be a joy. The only legitimate rationale for holding a meeting is to achieve a better outcome through the synergy of a group assembly; in other words, a meeting is justified by the whole, being greater than the sum of the parts.

As president of my district of chartered accountants I am currently chairing profusely, and it has been an opportune moment to stand back, reflect and plan my meeting strategy. 
 

“I think there needs to be a meeting to set an agenda for more meetings about meetings.”
Jonah Goldberg

 

Whether you are a participant, an administrator or the chair, every one of us has a perspective on the respective value of a meeting. One of the first things that I have done is taken a big picture view and think about why we have the existing meeting structure. In many cases meetings happen because they always have done. Audit planning meetings, client engagement meetings, audit team briefings…typically we like to follow the pattern. (Isn’t that where the old chestnut comes from: Why did the auditors cross the road? Because they looked in the file and that's what they did last year.)

Every meeting needs to have a specific, defined outcome, as does every item on the agenda. This means that on reviewing the meeting, after the event, it can be unambiguously evaluated as having met its objectives (or not).
 

“Actions speak louder than meetings.”
Lee Clow

 

It is the output from a meeting – the decisions made and the actions agreed – that validate its purpose. Meetings spawn meetings. How many meetings have you attended where there is much (highly interesting) discussion but very little tangible progress? Did you really need a meeting for this or was there a more effective mechanism – advance reading of papers, summarised views tabled for debate, as opposed to an undisciplined free-for-all, with little consent and even less hard resolution on the way forward. Of course discussion groups are a legitimate meeting genre but as with all group undertakings, preparation and intent are critical to getting the best return on investment of participant time. 
 

 “A meeting consists of a group of people who have little to say - until after the meeting.”
P.K. Shaw

 

As a rule of thumb, seven is often touted as the ideal number of meeting attendees. For each additional member over this number, meeting effectiveness is purportedly reduced by 10% (Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization by Blenko, Mankins & Rogers). Of course this is only a guideline but think about your typical large audit job meeting; you might have the whole team of 12 from the partner right down to the new school leaver trainee. That’s potentially 24 hours of highly valuable chargeable time. If your meeting objective is clear then you can properly evaluate whether your meeting intent aligns with the roles of the participants. How often did the senior manager go off on a tangent, what level of understanding did the junior have from 120 minutes of erudite audit talk? 

Of course, even with the magical seven, meetings often become subjugated to one or two voices and many a post mortem will reveal that several participants contributed nothing at all. Again this is a strong clue as to the veracity of the meeting model. Meetings are expensive. It might be nice for invitees to listen and observe but if this is their only role then there is probably a more cost effective approach to adopt. Attendees should be aligned to the meeting outcome, in terms of decision making and action execution. In other words, everyone present has a role to play. But even that doesn’t stop the domineering meeting monster…which brings me finally to my ten (utterly non-negotiable) Meeting Protocols:

  1. Set an agenda with a clear measurable objective for each agenda item.
  2. Agree and stick to a start and finish time.
  3. Nominate a chair or facilitator who is responsible for time keeping and progression through the agenda.
  4. Invite the minimum participants required to meet the objectives of the meeting.
  5. The chair (supported by the rest of the group) should seek to elicit contributions from all participants, while managing any dominance of particular members. 
  6. Meeting preparation is key to making the best use of the group time. Circulate documents for reading in advance and encourage pre-meeting clarification of issues where appropriate.
  7. Ensure items ‘just for information’ or ‘to be noted’, are kept to a minimum and distributed for contemplation before the meeting.
  8. Set up clear meeting protocols and rules of engagement such as use of mobiles, mutual respect, not interrupting, punctuality etc.
  9. Reserve ‘spin offs’ or highly detailed areas for break outs or sub meetings so that they don’t hijack the intentions of the main meeting. 

And finally, always, always, always ask:

  1. Do we really, really need this meeting? How else could we meet these objectives? What can we do by telephone or online?

Remember, seven people round a table is the gold standard…there are other options!

 

Which topic would you like to read about next month? Look over the list of topics in the original Audit Advantage article here and let us know your choice for the next topic we should cover.

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