Reducing or Eliminating Meetings
It is estimated that there are around 3 billion meetings every day across the world. That’s almost one meeting for every adult of working age (between the age of 18 and 65) on the planet today. Of course, the majority of these meetings are held in the so-called “western world” (which is only 12.5% of the population) which means that in countries such as the US people are attending an average of 3-4 meetings every day. If we were observing this behavior from a distance, we would have to conclude that meetings must be a useful and productive way to get things done, especially in businesses. However almost all the research in the last decade in particular has suggested that the majority of people see business meetings to be too frequent and have many problems when they do occur. The chart below details the most common complaints about meetings from over one thousands managers in the US and Europe for example:
The Top 10 Business Meeting Complaints
In fact, this same group of managers thought they would be 20% more productive on average if they attended no meetings whatsoever. This begs the simple question why don’t organizations reduce their meetings frequency or even eliminate them wherever they can?
The answer to this question is surprisingly complex as managers tend to believe that meetings seem to have an almost equal amount of pros and cons.
The Perceived Cons
- Most meetings are very abstract and about conceptual issues in the main
- The information conveyed in a meeting is very small
- Meetings drift off subject and tend to “ramble” more often than not
- They tie up lots of people’s time in the meeting and in preparing for them
- They are often poorly run (with little or no structure or proper control, in most cases)
The Perceive Pros
- Meetings are a chance to get everyone on the “same page” on an issue
- They are a fast way to get information out consistently to several people at once
- They allow people to ask questions and clarify in one place
- They can facilitate creativity and innovation by allowing people to build on each other’s points/ideas in one room (or virtually on an electronic conference call)
- They help to allocate and re-allocate work and resources efficiently
On the face of it then, it would seem as if we need to ensure that we only call a meeting when necessary and then run it tightly and we then gain the positive benefits listed above, which will then balance and even outweigh the negatives. Unfortunately, these two lists are not equivalent and there are several more negatives that need to be taken into consideration. Here are three that make reduction or elimination of meetings even more pressing as a need in most organizations:
1. Meetings are always too long. In a modern electronic world, where meetings are scheduled in something like Outlook, Gmail or other similar software, they are always booked in half-hour blocks of time, when in some cases they could be scheduled for much shorter periods. What’s wrong with 15 minutes or even an odd-time like 8 minutes for instance? Perhaps they could start at 10.04 and end at 10.12, which is much more likely to get people there on time and more focused on what needs to be done without rambling. In addition, multi-agenda item meetings, which take an hour or longer, are usually highly counter-productive the longer they go on, leaving people to feel drained and flat (or prone to drift-off or play meeting “games”).
2. The cost of tying people up in meetings is much higher than we think. To take a simple example, if you invite 10 people to a one-hour meeting, it’s a 10-hour meeting not a one hour one. So that trades 10 hours of individual productivity on personal tasks, projects and goals for a one hour meeting. This is not to count the impact of stopping all ten people in their routine and what they lose in concentration and momentum when they return from the meeting. As a result, we are investing as much as fifteen or twenty hours of time for a meeting, which means we should expect at least as much in return in financial benefit terms.
3. Meetings lead to more meetings. The very fact that a meeting of any kind takes place means that there are meeting minutes or notes to type up and send, actions to assign and report on and further issues to investigate that arise in the meeting, all of which are often seen to be best-handled in a subsequent meeting. This is not to mention the fact that further meetings are deemed to be necessary to let people who missed the last meeting to catch up (and waste other people’s time having to hear about the same subjects again). In other words, every meeting tends to keep spawning another meeting – almost like an endless cycle.
There is no doubt that some meetings are necessary and even add a great deal of value when held. However, it is highly likely that even these meetings can be shortened considerably and others can be eliminated altogether. Some effort to review which ones therefore seems well-worth the effort.