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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Review: Death By Meeting

At work our library is near our cafeteria so while heating up lunch I often sneak over to the library to browse. The other day this book title "Death By Meeting" caught my eye. While meetings are an essential to effective management of organizations, they seem to be a source of tension, struggle and ineffectiveness.

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable...About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business (J-B Lencioni Series)Death By Meeting (2004) is the work of Patrick Lencioni, a business consulting guru with a number of top-selling books to his credit. Most of the book is a fable about a video game company with really good people and really bad meetings. I’ll skip over the story and get right to the take home points. Lencioni highlights two problems with meetings.The first problem is this: meetings are boring. And the second is like it: meetings are ineffective. Meetings, says Lencioni, are boring because they lack drama. They are ineffective because they lack contextual structure.

The key to making meetings more engaging - and less boring - lies in identifying and nurturing the natural level of conflict that should exist. Leaders of meetings need to put the right issues - often the most controversial ones - on the table at the beginning of their meetings. By demanding that their people wrestle with those issues until resolution has been achieved, they can create genuine, compelling drama, and prevent their team from checking out.

Unfortunately, no amount of drama will matter if leaders don't create the right context for their meetings.  The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every iss in the same meeting.  Desperate to minimise wasted time, leaders decide that they will have one big staff meeting once a week or every other week.  This just ensures the meeting will be ineffectice and unsatisfying.  There should be different meetings for different purposes:

If you add up all of the time that these meetings require it amounts to approximately twenty percent of a leader's time. I am sure leaders spend more time than this in meetings.  But they need to ask themselves a basic question. "What is more important than meetings?" If they say "sales" or "e-mail" or "product design," then maybe they should reconsider their roles as leaders and go back to an individual contributor position. If you think about it, a leader who hates meetings is a lot like a surgeon who hates operating on people, or a symphony conductor who hates concerts. Meetings are what leaders do, and the solution to bad meetings is not the elimination of them, but rather the transformation of them into meaningful, engaging and relevant activities.

If you haven't read Death By Meeting I think you will enjoy it and hopefully get a better sense on how to improve your meetings. The approach in this book is similiar to the tiers of meetings that David Mann describes in Creating a Lean Culture. In my experience this works.  Mettings help us communicate but that doesn't mean just getting together is productive. The goal is to create a system that makes our meetings effective and efficient.

To get started right away there are a number of resources provided by the author at The Table Group including:

  The Meeting Model
  Tactical Meeting Guide
  Death By Meeting Quiz
  Tips on Effective Meetings
  Death By Meeting Excerpt
  Reading Guide

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  1. Thanks for sharing Tim. I love this book. I think it was one of the more original business novel story lines I've seen, instead of the much-copied The Goal template: company crumbling, internal maverick, external nutty guru, with a sideline of a little personal strife.

    We did a very short review of this in Lean Progress, quite a while ago:


    I think one of the most important messages in this book is that conflict is good. Conflict is how you move forward. Conflict is how you break new ground. If you avoid conflict, you avoid progress.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. I agree Jamie. So many times we try to avoid conflict. But I find healthly disagreement can be very powerful in getting to the best solutions. And these solutions tend to last longer.

  3. I agree with Patrick Lencioni, if not managed well meeting can be boring and a sheer waste of time. Therefore, in order for meetings to impactful, effective, and efficient the leader needs to ensure that the agenda is clear and that the hot topics are placed at the top of the agenda to create engagement from all present right away. But besides the engagement around such hot topics someone needs to manage the pending items that seem to mount because persons don't always follow through on their assignments or think about their assignments until the next meeting. And when I attend a meeting and one item after another receives "multiple pendings" I immediately think that this meeting process is rather ineffective and should be address immediately.