Why are there so many bad meetings?

August 3, 2015

Update on September 10, 2015: I just produced my first live broadcast on Periscope, summarizing the ideas in this post. Here’s the 10-minute video recording of that broadcast, which includes a brief overview of the five reasons I believe we experience so many bad meetings:


There are over 11 million corporate meetings a day in the United States alone. 11 million! Yet, as I am fond of saying, I have yet to meet anyone who is dying for their next meeting to start.

When was the last timBoring meeting!e you sat through a meeting that you found boring, a waste of time, and unproductive? Everyone I talk to can tell me about a recent meeting they attended but hated.

Yet most people who work in offices today spend most of their time in meetings of one kind or another. Maybe it’s a two-person conversation, and maybe it’s a group meeting with six or more participants. As Alan Webber pointed out over 20 years ago (“What’s So New About the New Economy?Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb 1993), conversation is at the heart of knowledge-based work. It’s how we learn, exchange information, solve problems, test our ideas, create new knowledge, and connect with our colleagues and customers.

So why do so many meetings turn out so badly? I believe there are at least five factors affecting the quality of our meeting experiences:

We are already swimming in a sea of information. Meetings have served traditionally as an efficient means of sharing consistent information with a group of people who “need to know.” A team leader calls everyone into a conference room to report news to the group or to ask the participants to share project updates.

Yet digital technology today provides most of that kind of information more quickly and more accurately, and in formats that can be fine-tuned to individual needs. Whether it’s email, Twitter, Jabber, instant messaging, or project status websites, everyone who needs to know what’s going on can get updates while sitting at their workstations, or on mobile devices no matter where they are physically.

Stopping everything else to sit in a closed conference room for an hour or more just doesn’t make the same kind of sense it used to.

It’s too easy to call meetings – and there is little accountability for results. It’s just too easy for a team or department leader to schedule a meeting. And hardly anyone publishes a formal agenda or a statement of desired outcomes in advance of a meeting.

And I can’t recall ever hearing a meeting leader identify the corporate cost of a meeting (not just the meeting room and refreshments, but the combined salary cost of all the participants; Rick Gilbert, author of Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations, estimates that a one-hour meeting of C-Suite executives can cost more than $35,000!). Too often a meeting is simply the default approach no matter what the need is.

Many meeting leaders don’t define their purpose or the desired process clearly. There are many different reasons for calling a meeting; and the appropriate conversation process varies dramatically depending on the meeting’s purpose and desired outcomes. An informational meeting should unfold very differently from a decision-making meeting, which in turn is very different from a creative brainstorming meeting. Yet all too often participants arrive at the meeting without any sense of the agenda, the process, or the intended outcomes.

See “What’s This Meeting For, Anyway?” for a more extended exploration of how a meeting’s purpose impacts its process and outcomes.

Most organizational cultures discourage candid conversation. When meetings are fun and engaging the participants are open, exploring ideas, listening actively to each other, and learning new and meaningful ideas. But in many organizations today the dominant behavioral norms discourage even mild disagreements.

One of the biggest enemies of meaningful meetings is the tendency towards “Groupthink” and an unwillingness to engage in active discourse. Challenging someone’s idea, or offering alternative approaches, means taking responsibility for conflict and change, and that can be stressful.

Most of us are not effective listeners and learners. The high levels of stress and overwork that affect so many of us these days makes it genuinely difficult to hear ideas or arguments that run counter to our own experience and preferences. New ideas, or ideas that might complicate our own work, are hard to absorb. So we tend to shut them out, or at PPPPleast dismiss them as not important or not doable.

The next time you call a meeting, or are invited to one, prepare by thinking through these four critical ingredients:

  1. Purpose
  2. Participants
  3. Process
  4. Place

I can almost guarantee that your meeting will be more memorable, more meaningful, and more engaging when you plan the meeting in advance, and then stick to your plan.


Contact me for a free one-hour consultation about how you can design and lead corporate conversations that engage your team and enhance organizational outcomes.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Brady Mick August 4, 2015 at 8:42 am

Jim:

I read your post while on site at a customer and listed off your bullet points. They immediately shot the following idea back that I wanted to share with you.

They believe their overly heavy meeting work and culture is because if their calendars are full of meetings their productivity can be proven. If you are in meetings all day long you ‘must’ be productive at work – right? Well, wrong! They intuitively know that meeting are killing their productivity, but the culture trumps the truth.

Amazing to me, and terribly disheartening.

Thanks for your blog. Hope you are having a great summer. I am.

Reply

James Ware August 4, 2015 at 8:55 am

Thanks Brady! That is a great story, if incredibly sad. I’m convinced that the way an organization conducts its meetings is a powerful indicator of its culture – whether its leaders respect employees, listen to them, and value their ideas. When meetings are routine, lackluster, and have no action or decision implications, they aren’t worth attending.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if meeting participants suddenly became intolerant of BS and time-wasting exercises in futility? Maybe its time for a revolution!

Reply

Brady Mick August 4, 2015 at 9:32 am

Whether revolution or evolution, a disruption of some degree seems appropriate.

Yesterday during an employee visioning session at the same customer, I was pressing on their meeting culture. When I asked if all meeting were equally important it was a very easy, “NO” from the group of 20. Then I asked how they knew which meeting invites were important and which were not, and one person responded, “I know and I don’t go to the unimportant ones.”

Others then started to comment on different expectations from different managers, which lead to the core idea: no one in the room only reported to one manager. All 20 people had at least two, and one person had 6 managers, 4 of which are at other global locations. That level of complexity is generating a meeting culture galore.

Then the group drifted into lamenting on a dream of leaders “making decisions” so the work could move forward efficiently and effectively. I guess the ‘buck stops’ with the perceived leaders, because when I asked if everyone was a leader I got blank stares in return.

Reply

Erik Jaspers August 13, 2015 at 6:08 am

An iconic display of meeting inefficiencies was made by John Cleese (ofcourse) in ‘Meetings, bloody meetings’. Take the full version, not the abstracts.
Hilareous and a learning experinece even after all these years.
Some things seem to change only slowly 🙂
Or not at all.

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