A Eulogy for Meetings
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I remember early in my professional life how excited I was to be invited to a meeting; it felt like I was finally somebody. With the possible exception of seeing your name on a business card for the first time, nothing quite compares with the exhilaration of being part of a real honest-to-God meeting. Unfortunately, meetings are so poorly run that all but the dimmest bulbs soon realize meetings not only waste your time, they suck at your very will to live. Thirty minutes in you're praying to die.
There is no bigger time waster than poorly run meetings, and remarkably few companies train people in running -- or participating in -- meetings. So what can we do to stop wasting time in meetings? Stop having them. The average manager spends between 35 and 50 percent of his or her time in meetings, and what’s worse is that executives say they believe that 67 percent are a waste of time.
Do the dollars make sense?
I used to work in not-for-profit healthcare, where we had a team of over 30 professionals meeting once a month for two-and-a-half hours. If you assume the average wage-plus-burden rate (the administrative cost associated with keeping a worker on staff) of $50 an hour, that's a whopping $3750. Given that the money raised by a not-for-profit goes directly to the poor and underserved, one has to ask oneself what value the organization realized for this princely sum? I would point out that we could have used this money to vaccinate homeless people against rabies. If there ever is a zombie apocalypse it will be because healthcare researchers wasted time and money that could have prevented it attending poorly run meetings.
Before you blithely plan your next meeting, calculate its cost and ask yourself whether accomplishing your meeting's goal is worth it. I’ll let you in on a secret, it usually isn’t.
So when is it important to have a meeting? Here is an exercise I use to determine whether a meeting is necessary:
Is the communication primarily one-sided?
The classic staff meeting is primarily a one-sided communication where the boss drones on and on and on and occasionally goes around the table inviting staff members to share pointless drivel to the intellectual goop that is a staff meeting. A dead giveaway that the meeting is a waste of time is the increasingly common practice during a conference call where the meeting leader immediately puts all the other participants on mute. What is the not-so-subtle message here? If the communication is one-sided, what’s the point of having a meeting? An email would be more effective and wouldn't insult the audience (unless of course you begin the email, “OK, all you idiots, shut up and read this”).
Is the meeting in the guise of communication?
So many corporate time-wasting crimes have been committed in the name of communication that I’m half surprised the Nuremberg Defense isn’t “we were only having a meeting to increase communication.” There are far better ways to communicate than dragging people together against their will, in fact, if all you want to do is to communicate, send a memo with directions to a website to visit or person to consult with, for additional information.
Is there a matter that needs input from the group?
If you are legitimately looking for people to provide input to your ideas or just want to pick people’s brains, then have a meeting. But limit the attendees to only the people whose opinions you really want to hear. Avoid pointless invitations (or optional ones) just to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Never trust those who insist on being invited to every meeting; they're mouth-breathing dolts.
Will the time be well spent?
Refer to the above calculation showing how much a meeting costs and ask yourself whether you would spend the same money hiring an outside firm to get those results. In most cases you probably wouldn't. It's like a having a color printer, far more documents get printed in color simply because it's available, with not so much as half a thought given to the additional cost.
If the answer is no to any of these questions, do your colleagues a favor and skip the meeting.