Meetings – What Are They Good For?

05 Nov 2018

Altogether now…


Amazon demi-god Jeff Bezos won’t have meetings before 10am because he’s not productive early doors. He has banned PowerPoint and he keeps meetings limited to the number of people that can be adequately fed by two pizzas.

Tesla and SpaceX head honcho Elon Musk recently urged colleagues to walk out of meetings as soon as it becomes obvious that they are not adding value. ‘It’s not rude to leave,’ he explains, ‘it’s rude to make someone stay and waste their time.’

The news doesn’t get much better in ‘normal’ businesses either.

Motivational speaker Jeff Hayden writing for asks the following question:

During the next meeting you attend, add up the hourly cost of every person in the room. Then imagine – which shouldn’t be hard if you own a small business – that you’re paying for that meeting. If the money came out of your pocket, would you have the meeting?

If you factor in the opportunity cost of what everyone in that meeting could be achieving, would a presentation by Rob from Marketing on the forward plan for Q1 2019 be a worthwhile way to spend your time?

He goes on to say that ‘Any meeting that won’t directly generate revenue or cost savings – either in the form of a key decision or a concrete plan of action – is a complete waste of money.’

Meetings By Numbers

Meetings are supposed to be a catalyst for getting things done, to discuss ideas and debate issues, to overcome obstacles and to drive outcomes and positive change. However, as we all know to our literal and metaphorical cost, the vast majority of meetings are about as useful as a chocolate teapot. People yabber on, ideas are very quickly lost or forgotten and no-one takes responsibility.

Fuze, the number one communications platform for the global enterprise conducted research in the US into the futility of meetings and the numbers are both staggering and yet hardly surprising…

$37 billion – the annual cost of unproductive meetings

25 million – the number of daily meetings in the US

67% – of meetings considered by executives to be failures

15% – the collective time a business spends in meetings, a number which has increased every year since 2008

4 hours – weekly time spent by employees planning for ‘status update’ meetings

Writing in the Harvard Business Review back in 2014, Michael Mankins, a partner at consultants Bain & Co in San Francisco conducted an exercise whereby they analysed the Outlook schedules of employees of an unnamed ‘large company’. They concluded that one single weekly executive meeting ate up a mind-boggling 300,000 person-hours a year.

That’s not a typo. It really does read three hundred thousand hours.

It was made up of 7,000 hours for the actual meeting, 20,000 hours for meeting prep, 63,000 hours for unit heads to prep their managers for their own prep and 210,000 hours for actual preparatory meetings.

It’s even more jaw-dropping on the basis that one year of 365 days consists of 8,760 hours.

The Bike Shed Effect

Herein, we suspect, lies the biggest problem.

Twentieth century English writer C. Northcote Parkinson postulated that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available’ and it has become known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.

It’s like buying a house. No matter how much space you have, you’ll always fill it.

It essentially says that people in meetings won’t speak up on the important decisions for fear of being wrong or embarrassed (or unwittingly giving themselves more work to do). However they still want to feel as if they’re making a valid contribution to proceedings so they will weigh in on the unimportant stuff. The result is that triviality becomes the dominant element of meetings and the actual point of the meeting – to make a decision on something – is lost.

It was called The Bike Shed Effect because Parkinson said that ‘A decision about the construction of a new bike shed’, as he put it, ‘will be debated for an hour and a quarter, then deferred for decision to the next meeting, pending the gathering of more information’.

Business writer Dale Dauten once wrote, ‘A meeting moves at the speed of the slowest mind in the room … all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind under-used’.

So, How Should Meetings Be Run, If At All…?

The Agenda – No meeting agenda, so says Jeff Haden, should include the words information, recap, review or discussion. The only agenda should be a single bullet point, or indeed something that requires a decision to be made. ‘Set product launch date’ for example.

Meeting Length – Our Outlook calendars are set at 30-minute intervals so a meeting’s length will be set for half-an-hour or an hour even if you only need 10 minutes. Decide in advance how long a meeting should last purely on the basis of what you need to accomplish, and nothing more.

Scientists have been able to identify how long the average person can concentrate for before their mind starts to wander and it’s in the region of 10 – 18 minutes. Have you ever wondered why TED talks are limited to 18 minutes…?

Late Arrivals – If the meeting starts at 10am, that’s when it starts. We’ve all been to meetings when the time of actual discussions start 15 minutes after the supposed meeting start time. Do that five times a week and that’s almost an hour wasted talking about last night’s football or the Strictly result and not actually being productive or getting anywhere close to making a decision about anything.

I’m Just Thinking Out Loud… –  Don’t let people do that. Prepare for meetings, have your thoughts organised. If it’s done right, you should know what you’re trying to achieve and you should come prepared. Half-baked concepts are the domain of the scatterbrain and talking for the sake of it, just so participants feel like they’re contributing in some way is a colossal waste of time and money.

Be Accountable – A good meeting should end with a decision made but if it’s never carried out or the responsibility for the action is never properly established, the meeting can be considered a failure. Establish who, what and when, in no uncertain terms.

Ultimately, none of us like meetings but if you can stick to these relatively simple rules, you might find you actually get something done!

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Have a good week.

Koncise Solutions

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