In a Dilbert cartoon the office boss asks Carol, his secretary, to schedule a meeting. When she asks what the topic of the meeting is, he replies, ‘I plan to fuse six sigma with lean methods to eliminate the gap between our strategy and objectives.’ Without so much as a sideways glance, Carol replies, ‘I’ll just say “waste of time.”’
According to TED speakers David Grady and Jason Fried, the average executive attends 62 meetings a month, but over a third of these are considered to be unnecessary or a waste of time. Given that executives spend 40–50 per cent of their time in meetings, this means they’re wasting over two months a year. Grady and Fried go on to say that the bill for poor meetings is $37 billion a year in the US alone. Bad meetings steal time and money.
Research shows that, on average, 15 per cent of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings and this figure is increasing year on year. One study, published in the Harvard Business Review, estimated the amount of time people spent supporting one weekly executive meeting in a large organization, based on analysing the Outlook calendars of their employees. It concluded that a whopping 300,000 hours a year were spent supporting that single meeting, taking into account the downstream cascade of team meetings that fed into it. Astonishingly, this figure only included meeting time, and excluded additional preparation. How we can reverse the trend?
Work Backward Not Forward
Let’s start with the four words, ‘Let’s have a meeting’. They seem innocent enough, but they probably cause more problems and waste more time than any other sentence in the workplace. Rather than questioning whether a meeting is necessary, the normal response is, ‘Good idea. When do we want it, and who should we invite?’
Now that a vague intention (‘let’s meet’) and a broad topic (such as ‘project review’) have been established, diaries are opened and dates and names suggested. Someone says, ‘Shall we stick it in for an hour?’ and calendar invites are sent out. When your meeting does eventually take place, a curious and amazing thing happens: it lasts for exactly an hour. This is because the conversation expands, like a giant sponge in water, to fill the allocated time. This scene is so normal, and gets re-enacted so many times each day, that it barely provokes a flicker of outrage, but it is almost criminal in nature. To transform your meeting culture, make sure that three questions are asked before invites are sent out:
This is a totally different thinking framework to one in which you think forward toward a vague intention. The best leaders and managers follow this process of working backward from the outcomes they are committed to. For example, Sir Dave Brailsford heads up Team Sky, who have produced three Tour de France winners in the last five years. It’s no surprise that Brailsford describes his role in this way:
"My job is to look at the best probabilities to try to win, to picture someone on that podium with the yellow jersey, on the Champs Elysée, and work back from there."
First get clear on purpose and outcomes, and then figure out how to make them happen. You can practise this approach in relation to any project, and doing so for meetings is a good place to start. After a while, it becomes a way of life.
Halve the Time and Double the Value
To remind people that meetings cost money, variations on the taxi metering system have been developed which calculate the real-time price of a meeting. Having plugged in the annual salary of your staff, you ask meeting attendees to clock in when they arrive and the meter ticks away in the corner for everyone to see. Without going to such lengths, you can still take on the challenge of halving the time you spend in meetings and doubling their value. Here are seven questions to ask:
If you follow these steps, the meeting meter will still tick, but you’ll have fewer meetings and higher-quality conversations. In doing so, you can defy the words of American writer and economist Thomas Sowell, who said that people who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.
My book is Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them, published by Watkins.
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David Grady and Jason Fried, ‘The Economic Impact of Bad Meetings’, TED talk, 17 November 2014, ideas.ted.com/theeconomic-impact-of-bad-meetings.
Michael C Mankins, ‘This Weekly Meeting Took Up 300,000 Hours a Year’, Harvard Business Review, 29 April 2014.
Lawrence Tobin, ‘Sir Bradley Wiggins Out of 2014 Tour de France’, Independent, 27 June 2014.