“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”
James T Kirk Captain of the Enterprise

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” talks about the 10,000 hours that are needed to become an expert at something (see “First Secret of Success” posted September 16, 2010). If this is the case then anyone who has worked in a corporate environment for more than about 5 years must already be an expert in attending meetings. Note that I said expert in “attending” rather than “conducting” meetings.

Board Meeting; Author: Areyn (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

According to an MCI Conferencing white paper called “Meetings in America”, most US Professionals attend over 60 meetings per month, and research has shown that over 50% of the time spent in these is actually wasted. I am sure that European statistics are not very different.

Even if one assumes that the average meeting time is as low as one hour, and they are usually longer, this means that in an average working month most professionals are spending the equivalent of about 8 days in meetings of which 4 days (or 20% of the monthly time available) is wasted. I believe that this number is much higher and may even be growing. Add to this the fact that most professionals at all levels are drowning in emails, it means that one would be lucky to escape with only 50% wasted time in an average work day.

If meetings take up so much time, and most professionals complain about the effectiveness of meetings in their organisations, why do we persist with so many meetings and why have they become such an integral part of most company cultures?

I believe that there are 4 major reasons.

1. Meetings are used to try and overcome poor information sharing processes.

It is critical that ways are found to communicate information without getting people in the same room or on the same conference call. There is now such a plethora of tools available to enable the creation of 24/7 information sharing processes that the need for physical meetings to share information should be an exception. Too many meetings involve people sharing hundreds of Powerpoints about what they have done in the past. Meetings to present historical actions to large groups of people achieve little for the business, and are generally used only to justify the existence of the presenters.

2. Meetings are used to try and overcome the lack of clear decision making processes.

It is better to determine whether you have workable decision making processes in your team, rather than to have meetings to try and define or achieve needed decisions. Clear objectives and delegation should allow those that are most effected to make decisions that are within their area of responsibility, and informing those that need to know, instead of indulging in endless group discussions.

Parliamentary party meeting in European Parliament; Author: Björn Laczay; via Wikimedia Commons

3. Meetings are used to cover up inadequate management skill.

This occurs when the objective is to “look busy” rather than to “get on with the job”. I have found that the weakest of managers tend towards calling the most meetings. This is because many managers focus more on busy-ness rather than business, and calling endless meetings is just another way to overcome the fact that the manager does not know what he should be doing in his role.

4. Fear of failure pushes people towards collective decisions (and therefore shared blame) if things don’t work out as planned.

Too many times meetings are called so that one person does not have to take the risk of making a tough decision that can then be directly attributed to him/her. Pushing the decision to a collective one in an open meeting, enables everyone to run for cover if the decision turns out to be wrong, and even enables everyone to personally take credit if the collective decision turns out to be a good one.

The problem with meetings as a decision making tool is that committees generally make decisions based on compromise, which means that it is rare that a specific person takes personal responsibility and commitment for ensuring that the decision taken will work, as there is rarely individual ownership of any group decision, and it is a rare team that has built the culture of collective decision ownership (See “I hate Compromise” posted September 6, 2010).

The 62nd General Assembly of the United Nations; Source: Agência Brasil; Author: Marcello Casal JR/ABr; via Wikimedia Commons

Meetings can be important to ensure that everyone is “on the same page” and in those instances where it is critical to get the buy-in of those involved, and should only be attended by people who have a serious stake in the decision and the outcome. Meetings should not be used as a cover-up for inadequacies in the people nor the culture in the team, division or company, as these are just time stealers.
To be effective, meetings need to have critical development, planning and preparation done beforehand to ensure that the intent, the behaviours and the desired outcomes expected are all well prepared, understood, agreed and committed to by all attendees.

As John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) American/Canadian economist said …
“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”


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