‘The idea that we need meetings is false!’ Interview with Al Pittampalli

Al PittampalliAl Pittampalli calls himself meeting culture warrior. He’s on a mission to change the way organisations hold meetings, make decisions, and coordinate action. It’s a beautiful mission that echoes a lot with the work I do. His manifesto: Read This Before Our Next Meeting sets a new standard for the endless meetings intoxicating our corporate cultures worldwide. I asked Al a few questions about the Modern Meeting Standard.

Already during my introduction, Al interrupts me by saying that he does not need to review the interview prior to publishing.
Ruben: Why don’t you need to review the interview?

Al: I trust you’ll do a great job. It relates to the type of culture I want to spread with the Modern Meeting Standard. When you need execution speed you need to trust someone, otherwise you slow down the process. So I trust you’ll do a great job in promoting me.
Ruben: That’s a great and surprising way of working. Now I feel the urge not to disappoint you and handle your trust with great care. It also shows how serious you are about spreading what you call the revolution of the Modern Meeting Standard. How is the revolution going?

Al: Great! The book proved to be a great vehicle. It inspires people. They now realise that meetings can be different. There are organisations implementing these new rules.
Ruben: Do you have any figures?

Al: I have lots of anecdotal evidence but haven’t done any research myself. I mainly hear the stories of success and struggle from different companies. But I’ve one example of a Health Care Organisation that measured the productivity of their workers. They had just done a survey about the total amount of hours people would spend in meetings. They almost got a heart attack when they saw the figures. So they started using the Modern Meeting Standards and it really changed the way they collaborate and make decisions.
Ruben: How can you explain the success?

Al: We’re at the start of a movement, the same way as where the ‘Death by Powerpoint’ movement was a couple of years ago. That movement made its way through, but it started slowly. So I hope that the Modern Meetings Standard movement will be quicker. There are already a lot champions out there. So for me, the main challenge is to keep in touch with them and find ways for support.
Ruben: What support do you believe they need?

Al: Most people don’t yet understand the challenge we’re facing with our meetings. So we need to sell the vision of better meetings. My support will be to shadow the champions, and help them to keep explaining the vision and implement Modern Meetings.
Ruben: What’s the vision about?

Al: You read things about how to run meetings in leading publications. And they’re all about HOW to set up a good meeting. But what we never tackle is what really should be happening in meetings. We should enable people to make the change. The HOW is pretty trivial when it comes to meetings. It’s about planning, putting all the issues on the agenda and slotting the issues in a certain order. But the WHY of meetings, that’s what we should be working on.
Ruben: Are managers fit for this change? Most prefer holding onto their position of power and convene meetings whenever they feel like necessary for their team.

Al: Implementing the Modern Meeting Standards is extremely difficult. It’s like helping a drug addict to detoxify. It’s really hard to get people to change, but it’s worth the intervention. It will be an uncomfortable conversation but it’s a necessary one.
Ruben: Why focus on meetings if you want to change?

Al: Meetings are at the heart of our decision-making. If you change the meetings, you change the way we decide and collaborate. It’s in the meetings where the action is, or at least should be. We’re facing a tremendous diffusion of decision-making in our meeting rooms. There is a leadership problem. So we need individuals that stand up for their decision and defend them. The Modern Meeting helps those individuals because it’s based on the premise that the Modern Meeting is extremely well prepared and that it’s used as a decision-resolving tool. It’s a place where the owner of the problem says: ‘Listen, I’m holding this meeting to discuss the final details of my decision prepared with all of you.’
Ruben: Why do you target individuals?

Al: Groups won’t agree easily. In groups responsibilities get diffused. I want to target people that say: ‘I’m taking responsibility’. So that’s why I target individuals.
Ruben: Why is failure part of the equation of the Modern Meeting Standard?

Al: It recognises that the world has changed. The ones that innovate become the winners. They use their creativity to make decisions and failure is part of that. When you look at creativity there is a high variance in success. You can’t be creative without failing.
Ruben: What if people challenge your leadership?

Al: Politics in organisations is a real big problem. It’s an issue of trust. If I don’t trust you then there would be no speed, no expediency. We have to create an environment with trust. Otherwise you end up with a toxic culture. So you have to give people the benefit of the doubt and stop questioning their intentions.
Ruben: That reminds me of improvisation, especially from the world of Jazz or Theatre. When the group starts they don’t know where they’ll be heading and how the process will develop. There’s no preconceived plan, there are just starting elements. This requires from the performers that you trust one and other, that others will not criticize your input because this breaks the process. And a broken process is a deadly sin because the public notices immediately. So you have to give benefit of doubt and never question the good intentions of others. You have to work with them, build upon their ideas. 

Al: That’s a nice analogy! Meetings give you a way to practice the trust because meetings are tangible. You can use them to let others make decisions on your behalf. Then you start trusting people.
Ruben: How do you create an environment of trust?

Al: You have several ways, but one that pops up now is that most organisations don’t put a premium on the design of their meeting rooms. With the meeting room you state what type of organisation you are. For example 37signals: they value independent time, so they’ve designed the working space, including the meeting rooms, in such a way that you can do a lot of independent work, without being disturbed. Pixar is another nice example. They want planned collaboration, they want people to talk a lot and share ideas. So they designed a space that does just that. The values of an organisation come together in the meeting room so design them according to those values!
Ruben: Why do you take the brainstorm out of the Modern Meeting Standard?

Al: Good question. Brainstorms are the moments where organisations should get ideas, where creativity should be living. If we treat them like meetings, our organisations will fail. A friend of mine, writer, once said ‘you can’t write and edit at the same time’. The processes are separate. And it’s the same with meetings. Problem solving goes in two different phases: one is the brainstorming and the other the evaluation. These are two different mental processes so you’d better be clear about them. On top of that you want the bosses out of the room when you brainstorm because they tend to influence the free flow of ideas. They should be involved in the decision-making and not in the brainstorm.
Ruben: Do you know of any no-meeting organisation?

Al: I’m not aware of any large organisation that works without meetings. I know from small teams that work without meetings. And essentially organisations are all made up of small units so that should give a start to think about a no-meeting organisation. But meetings don’t have to take place. The idea that we need meetings is false!
Ruben: I like that last quote of yours! Many thanks for your time.

Al: Thanks to you!


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