John Cleese Presents His 5‑Step Plan for Shorter, More Productive Meetings (1976)

Let’s face it, meet­ings are bor­ing at best and at worst, chaot­ic, volatile, and poten­tial­ly vio­lent. And let’s also face it: to get through life as func­tion­ing adults, we’re going to have to sit through one or two of them — or even one or two of them a week.

Maybe we’re the one who calls the meet­ings, and maybe they all feel like a waste of time. One solu­tion is to have more infor­mal meet­ings. This can be espe­cial­ly tempt­ing in the age of work-from-home, when it’s impos­si­ble to know how many meet­ing atten­dees are wear­ing pants. Few­er rules can raise the spon­tane­ity quo­tient, but allow­ing for the unex­pect­ed can invite dis­as­ter as well as epiphany.

On the oth­er end of the scale, we have the for­mal­i­ty of par­lia­men­tary rules of order, such as those intro­duced by U.S. Army offi­cer Hen­ry Mar­tyn Robert in 1876. Robert, whose father was the first pres­i­dent of More­house Col­lege, gained a wealth of expe­ri­ence with unpro­duc­tive meet­ings as he trav­eled around the coun­try with the Army. One par­tic­u­lar meet­ing became a defin­ing expe­ri­ence, as one account has it:

While in San Fran­cis­co, the local leader of his com­mu­ni­ty didn’t show up for a church meet­ing. Hen­ry Robert was asked to pre­side over the town hall (with­out any pri­or notice). Let’s just say that on this par­tic­u­lar evening in 1876, he did a bad job. An hour into the meet­ing, peo­ple were scream­ing and the church actu­al­ly erupt­ed into open con­flict.

Sad­ly, this sort of thing has become almost rou­tine at town halls and school board meet­ings. But it needn’t be so at the office. Nor, says John Cleese in the brief video above, do meet­ings need to fol­low the for­mal­i­ty of par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure.

Cleese’s rules are sim­pler even than the sim­pli­fied Roberts or Rosen­berg’s Rules of Order, an even more sim­pli­fied ver­sion of Robert’s Rules. Fur­ther­more, Cleese avoids using words like “Rules” which can be a turn-off in our egal­i­tar­i­an times. Instead, he presents us with a “5‑Step Plan” for hold­ing bet­ter and short­er meet­ings.

1. Plan — Clear your mind about the pre­cise objec­tives of the meet­ing. Be clear why you need it and list the sub­jects.
2. Inform — Make sure every­one knows exact­ly what is being dis­cussed, why, and what you want from the dis­cus­sion. Antic­i­pate what infor­ma­tion and peo­ple may be need­ed and make sure they’re there.
3. Pre­pare — Pre­pare the log­i­cal sequence items. Pre­pare the time allo­ca­tion to each item on the basis of its impor­tance not its urgency.
4. Struc­ture and Con­trol — Take the evi­dence stage before the inter­pre­ta­tion stage and that before the action stage and stop peo­ple jump­ing ahead or going back over ground.
5. Sum­ma­rize all deci­sion and record them straight away with the name of the per­son respon­si­ble for any action

Easy, right? Well, maybe not so easy in prac­tice, but these steps can, at the very least, illu­mi­nate what’s wrong with your meet­ings, which may cur­rent­ly resem­ble one of Cleese’s many par­o­dies of busi­ness cul­ture. Nobody video­phoned it in at the time, but try­ing to fig­ure out who’s sup­posed to be doing what can still take up an after­noon. Let Cleese’s five steps bring order to the chaos.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

John Cleese on How “Stu­pid Peo­ple Have No Idea How Stu­pid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect)

John Cleese Revis­its His 20 Years as an Ivy League Pro­fes­sor in His New Book, Pro­fes­sor at Large: The Cor­nell Years

Mon­ty Python’s John Cleese Cre­ates Ads for the Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion

John Cleese’s Very Favorite Com­e­dy Sketch­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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