But you can fix them.

Have you ever heard of the Bike Shed Effect?

C. Northcote Parkinson, who first described the effect, called it the Law of Triviality. It states that a decision about the construction of a bike shed “will be debated for an hour and a quarter, then deferred for decision to the next meeting, pending the gathering of more information.”

Undoubtedly, you’ve seen this in action. Your board holds a meeting, and two hours later nothing has happened. The overconfident loudmouths steer the conversation in whatever direction they want, often being scared to engage on real issues they’re uninformed about, while the most informed attendees find it hard to get a word in.

The people who talked the most feel like they really contributed and got things done and the board members who want to see the business be truly productive have left feeling discouraged. This then becomes a vicious cycle, and you start to notice the results.

This all happens without us even thinking about the hours that go into preparing for these meetings. Think about the one-on-ones, the team meetings, the management meetings that happen before an AGM. All the time spent preparing for those. It’s a wonder anyone actually gets any real work done when we spend all our time preparing for and having meetings — meetings that culminate in nothing.

So how do you fix this? You’re the on the board for a reason, you have the authority, you can make things happen. There are plenty of ways, but the first thing you need to learn to do is speak up, be authoritative, be focused, and be polite about it. Without asserting yourself, those loudmouths will take over again, and the whole cycle will spin on.

1. Be prepared.

Figure out what needs to be accomplished. Develop a plan that leads to that accomplishment. Summarise it, so you can communicate it succinctly and effectively. Write all this down. Take an objective look at the plan, or ask someone else to, and find any holes. Re-evaluate, re-write, and your plan is ready.

If you’re the Chair, or you have multiple projects, you’ll have to do this for each important topic. If that’s the case, make sure you have a clear, solid agenda for your meeting. It’s common for topics at the top of the agenda to get the most discussion time, so plan accordingly.

2. Stay focused.

There will be people in your meetings who want to take the conversation off topic. Don’t let them. Politeness is important, but if the group loses focus they will need someone to bring them back. Be firm, be gentle. Remind everyone what they’re here for. That bike shed won’t build itself.

3. Ask questions, encourage participation.

When someone says they can’t start building the bike shed until they know exactly how many people ride to the office on each day of the year, ask why. When someone says they want to program an app to track the bike shed project before any construction starts, ask why, and how, and even who. Poke holes. If you don’t have the knowledge to do that, I guarantee there will be someone in the room who does. If that person is having trouble making themselves heard, bring the attention to them. Ask what they think.

They will likely have a solution. Now, these are only a few of the many things that can make your meetings productive. But it all boils down to being authoritative, focused, prepared, and polite. If you can keep your committee on track, you can make great things happen. You can build that bike shed, and you can build it today.