“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything” says John Galbraith. I admit in my career in Shell that I avoided meetings like the plague. Especially those times when I was in a head office and increasingly as I fulfilled more senior positions in the company.

Why is it that in the world of corporations and government that meetings, more times than not, do not work? What characterises the behaviour of individuals and the teams who meet that destroys the ability of any meeting to actually be of value? I remember the characters and situations well. There have been?.

I’m too important to listen: The one who has a side bar conversation with whoever is next to them during a presentation and later cannot remember being told about an issue which was a central theme to the presentation.

Let’s talk about my favourite topic: The one who goes down every rabbit hole possible, losing focus and often preventing others from regaining focus of the meeting.

This meeting is not for making decisions: My favourite. Calling together a wide range of people at a very high opportunity cost to attend a meeting at which all the necessary data is available, but making a decision that plainly needs to be made is put off. The next meeting is usually in a month!

I sent an email about last month’s action item but nobody responded: Translated; I forgot we had a meeting, did not read the minutes until five minutes ago and this lame excuse is the best I can come up with.

About that font size; do you think it is appropriate?: The person whose main contribution to the debate on the merits of arguments put forward in a presentation worries about the size, colour of the font or the font itself rather than the content.

The hand grenade, sometimes called the dead fish: In the middle of a meeting make a statement about an individual or the team or the organisation that derails everyone by the nature of what is not said directly after the statement. The statement hangs like the smell of a bad fish or causes a nervous stutter in the meeting as if waiting for a grenade to go off. A statement about the yet to be announced reorganisation with fewer new positions than there are people currently employed usually does nicely.

Lost their way back from a break: The team agrees to a five minute break. One or more people are more than five minutes late as they get lost on their way back or their watch loses time as they pass through a magnetic field. What is it with not wanting to come back to meetings? If meetings are that bad then coming back on time will more likely finish them earlier than not coming back on time.

The ambush: Send out an agenda which is nondescript carrying very little detail of what needs to be discussed, what preparation is required and what decisions are expected to be taken. When the participants get there, unleash the secret agenda forcing them to react to direct questioning and assertions in the hope they will say yes to my request or look small because they were unprepared.

The ?Lets go around the room and tell us what’s going on? call: People are forced to believe they have to say something to establish that they are working hard. It pushes people towards self-promotion. The real question should be “What is happening in your patch that will impact other people?” To avoid falling into the trap of participating in useless meetings there are a few rules for meetings which need to be observed by the leader of the meeting. Plan the meeting; be clear on objectives of the meeting, be clear WHY you need the meeting and list the topics to be addressed. Inform participants, making sure everyone knows exactly what is being discussed, why and what you want from the discussion. Anticipate what people and information may be needed and make sure they are there. Do not invite people who cannot contribute to the objectives of the meeting. Inform them of the results if they need to be informed. Prepare the meeting along a logical sequence of items and allocate time on the basis of importance, not its urgency. Control the meeting through structure by getting all evidence out before interpretation and action and stop people from jumping back and going over old ground. Do not tolerate late comers and late returners. Summarize all decisions and record them straightaway with the name of the person responsible for any action and the timeline for delivery. Finally, to quote Herbert Hoover, ?When the outcome of a meeting is to have another meeting, it has been a lousy meeting.?

The alternative for individual directors is confusion and potential ineffectiveness as board members. The alternative for the board and its stakeholders is chronic underperformance or, in the worst case, acute failure.