Why Most Meetings Stink

After attending 40,000 of them, 92-year-old business whiz Simon Ramo has a few tips

Research scientist and businessman Simon Ramo has written several business and technical books, and even a couple on tennis, including Tennis by Machiavelli. His latest is Meetings, Meetings and More Meetings: Getting Things Done When People Are Involved (Bonus Books, $19.95.) Senior Correspondent Larry Armstrong recently called up the 92-year-old co-founder of what became TRW -- the R is for Ramo -- and asked for a meeting.

What are your credentials as an expert on meetings?

Two come to mind. The first is purely quantitative: I started going to meetings around age 20. So over 70 years I estimate that I've gone to more than 40,000. Not too many people have that much experience. Another one: I've spent time and effort observing the process, and that's not true of everyone who attends meetings. I'm not the only one who has noticed that meetings can be improved and that too many are unnecessary, but not everyone who notices these things does something about it.

Why are some companies better at running efficient meetings than others?

I have never known of the issue receiving the attention of top management. Those organizations that do a better job of meetings happen to be led by people who take an interest in wanting some productivity about the process. It's the individuals who stand out rather than the companies.

Do you have any tips for chairing meetings more efficiently?

The most important thing is to be prepared, to know the subject and purpose of the meeting, and what you hope it will achieve. If you can't find the time to prepare for meetings then you should stop calling so many. Another is to know the people who are invited. Think ahead as to which individuals are most likely to make the greatest contribution, and anticipate others who you'll have to, as tactfully and gently as possible, interrupt to move the discussion along. Finally, keep the objective of the meeting constantly in your mind so you'll keep moving toward the goal. But if the goal changes during or because of the meeting, be prepared to invent Plan B.

Over the years, has technology changed meetings?

Yes. Some for the better, some for the worse. As an example, information technology has made it possible for a lot of details to be made available quickly to a large number of people, so attendees can be better informed about anything being discussed. That's a positive. The negative is that people now present too much detail. With charts being created mostly by computers, people don't stop with the main points; they can't resist the unnecessary elaboration.

Has technology created more distractions in meetings?

Technology has increased the potential for bringing new distractions, though I don't know that the total distraction level has changed. Are cell phones in meetings any more or less distracting than people being called out to take phone calls? Or people reading incoming e-mails instead of paying attention to the speaker?

I really liked the chapter on dozers and dozees, the people who doze off during meetings and the presenters who cause them to fall asleep. Any tips for dozers?

Almost everyone I know who has seen the book has felt compelled to comment about that chapter. If you attend enough meetings, it's inevitable that you'll doze off sometimes. Al Carnesale, the chancellor at UCLA, told me about the advice he got when he was younger: "When you wake up, don't say 'what?' Say 'why?"'

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