Meeting Goals

Sure, we all hate meetings — but they are essential, and there are ways to make them better

Back Longreads Sep 17, 2019 By Jeff Wilser

I bet you a cup of coffee that you are reading this just before a meeting, or maybe just after. Another bet: You feel that there are too many meetings. A third: This gauntlet of meetings can make it tough — or impossible — to finish your work.  

These are cowardly bets for me to make, because the research says I will almost certainly win. A 2012 Salary.com survey of 3,200 employees found “too many meetings” to be the top time waster (at 47 percent). And we go to more meetings than ever. Back in 1976 a study published in the Harvard Business Review estimated there were 11 million meetings every day in the United States, and that number has more than tripled: A 2014 analysis from meeting guru Elise Keith estimates this figure to be from 36 million to 56 million.   

Perhaps the most surprising thing is how numb we are to all of this. We take this overabundance of meetings as a given, like traffic on the way to work. Yet the issue should command our attention. As Intel cofounder Andy Grove once observed, “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment worth $2,000, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his (or her) fellow managers.”

Except they’re not walking away with $2,000. Another 2014 study by Keith tallied up the cost of meetings at a jaw-dropping $1.4 trillion. Then there are the costs that are tougher to quantify — frustration, burnout, stress, hurt feelings. So we asked Sacramento productivity and organization experts why our meetings go sideways — and how to fix them. 

Why So Many, and Why it Matters

Let’s start with the good news. The increase in meetings has been fueled, in part, by positive trends in the workplace, according to Barrett McBride, who owns Barrett McBride & Associates, a Sacramento-based management consultant company. “Leadership trends have evolved from autocratic approaches to inclusive approaches,” she says. To get more input from more voices, we meet with them. Overall, McBride says, that inclusion has led to higher engagement and more transparency in decision-making. 

“People are stressed about all the work they didn’t get done — and that still needs to get done — because they were in a day of meetings.” Kimberly Elsbach, professor of management, UC Davis

We can also thank (and blame) technology. Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management at UC Davis, says that in the era of Skype and video conferencing, “there’s no excuse for not attending a meeting.” Technology makes it easier to schedule meetings, organize meetings, go to meetings. And technology has a sneakier impact. Since so much of our workday is spent behind screens, people feel what Lisa Montanaro, a productivity expert based in Davis, calls a “cultural pressure” to counteract the screen time with face time. “People want to feel like there’s a face-to-face connection, and that the communication lines are open,” says Montanaro, who owns Lisa Montanaro Global Enterprises. She also says managers call meetings because they think we’ve always done it this way. We have lots of meetings because we’re used to having lots of meetings, and it can take guts to buck the status quo.

Meetings breed meetings too. A 2014 study by Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain & Company, found that at one large company, the weekly senior executive status meeting — just once a week! — required 300,000 annual hours of work (more than 5,000 hours per week). Senior directors met to prepare for the executives, junior directors met to prepare for the senior directors, managers scrambled to prep for the directors, the underlings hustled to make slides and spreadsheets — the Dilbert cartoon writes itself.   

These meetings can cause burnout. We’re all busy. “People are stressed about all the work they didn’t get done — and that still needs to get done — because they were in a day of meetings,” says Elsbach. It’s not that meetings get in the way of leisure; meetings get in the way of work. “There’s almost a resentment,” says Montanaro. “People are thinking, ‘I could be chiseling away at my to-do list.’” That frustration is acute when meetings feel pointless, veer off-topic, get nothing done and are dominated by the conversation hogs. Middle managers have it particularly rough; McBride says they’re pulled in two directions — meetings from the top and meetings from the bottom — and her clients grumble that there’s “a lot of discussion but no decision.”

Related: Is your “be like me” mentality hurting your team?

There are countless ways to upgrade meetings, but they can be clumped into one of two buckets: the structure of meetings (the when, the where, the who) and the internal dynamics of the meeting itself (the why, the how).

The Structure of Meetings

The When

Thanks to habit, custom and, more realistically, the default settings of Outlook, we schedule meetings for an hour or 30 minutes. But does that make sense? Logically, what are the odds that the optimal time to accomplish your goal is exactly 30 or 60 minutes? Recall the wisdom from Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill however much time you give it. So why give it the full hour? 

Montanaro suggests meeting for a fractional time, like 23 minutes. “People aren’t as late if you have a start time of 4:07,” she says. That time is memorable, even kind of playful, and, worst case, it will only waste 23 minutes instead of 30. If that’s simply too goofy for your organization’s culture, you can go the Google Calendar route, and default all meetings to 20 or 50 minutes instead of 30 and 60, which builds in a cushion for bathroom and email breaks. In his book “The Surprising Science of Meetings,” Steven G. Rogelberg cites the example of TINYpulse, a survey research company, which “starts a daily staff meeting at 8:48 a.m. Not only does this practice raise eyebrows because of its uniqueness, but also, as an added bonus, TINYpulse reports almost zero tardiness.” 

The Where

Another simple tweak is to mix up the location. When Montanaro conducts training sessions at a law firm, she’ll sometimes surprise them by saying, “Let’s go outside!” Or maybe she’ll make it a walking meeting, a la every Aaron Sorkin show. “I personally love walking meetings,” she says. “If you get people to move their bodies, it gets the oxygen flowing, changes perspectives.” Walking meetings, typically one on one, are fashionable in Silicon Valley; Rogelberg says the ranks of meeting-walkers include Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and employees at LinkedIn, where “folks circle around a 22- to 25-minute looped path in their corporate headquarters.” 

“I personally love walking meetings. If you get people to move their bodies, it gets the oxygen flowing, changes perspectives.” Lisa Montanaro, productivity expert, Lisa Montanaro Global Enterprises

Then there’s the huddle, aka the daily stand-up or daily scrum, which has “really taken off,” according to Tania Fowler, owner and founder of Sacramento-based Interplay Coaching. The huddle is used at Apple, Dell and Capital One. Fowler gives a few simple rules: It should be short (5-15 minutes), every day at the same time, no chairs (this encourages brevity), “no coffee cake” (you lose focus), no decision-making and “absolutely no problem-solving.” (Once you go down the twisted path of problem-solving, you’ll blow past your allotted time.) 

The Who

How many people should come to a meeting? We tend to over-invite, including this guy and that guy and the kitchen sink because, as Montanaro says, “There’s often a fear of, ‘Oh, my God, we’re going to leave someone out!’” Large, bloated meetings can lead to both exasperation (it’s hard to chime in) or, at the other end of the spectrum, “social loafing” — as others wrestle to grab the conversational conch, some might slink into the background. So embrace your inner doorman and keep a strict guest list. Or you can use Amazon’s “two-pizza rule” — the maximum number of people in a meeting is based on how many can be fed by two pizzas. 

The Meeting Itself

The Why

The true cause of a bad meeting could be more foundational. Fowler cites research from Gallup finding only 41 percent of employees “strongly agree” they know what their organizations stand for, which means 59 percent do not. This ambiguity bleeds into meetings. Meetings can be lousy, says Fowler, because companies are “terrible at clarifying what the hell they’re about. If you’re going to call a meeting, then clarify why you’re calling the meeting. I call it the mission of the meeting.”

I push back a bit. I ask her, “Aren’t some meetings necessary but, you know, kind of boring? Take a finance budget meeting. Should even that have a ‘mission’?”

Fowler pauses, thinks. She then cites a classic story from the 1960s when, at the peak of the space race, Walter Cronkite paid a visit to NASA and interviewed its employees. He spoke to a janitor and asked him what his role was. Fowler gives the punchline: “The janitor said, ‘I’m putting a man on the moon.’” So, yes, even a snoozer of a meeting about the third-quarter budget can be mapped back to the mission of your company, by saying, perhaps, with raising voice, “Right here, right now, in this conference room, we will ensure that we have the right revenue targets, because if we don’t get the revenue right, then our company will not survive.” A St. Crispin’s Day speech this is not, but employees are more engaged when they can sniff the purpose. 

The How

Another reason meetings can be unproductive, says Fowler, is people lack a grounding in the right “norms” of meeting culture. This can be fixed. When Fowler facilitates meetings, she spends the first five minutes quickly establishing its norms, and then jotting them down on a flip chart or whiteboard. Example norms: No talking over people; be succinct; listen before you speak; and no technology (phones, laptops, tablets), except during breaks. Once a team creates its norms, Fowler instructs the team to print, laminate and use it for meetings in the future. Put someone in charge of the norms; that person doesn’t have to be the boss. Fowler adds that you can “even have fun with it,” like tossing Nerf balls at the person who breaks a norm. 

“Norms create safety,” says Fowler, meaning they help make a meeting more inclusive, and they can empower and embolden the introverts. An age-old meeting problem: The good ideas from the introverts are buried beneath all the mediocre ideas from the yapping extroverts. So when establishing norms, Fowler explicitly brings up the question of introverts vs. extroverts. “I’ll tell them, ‘If you’re an extrovert, challenge yourself to ask do you have more to add. And introverts, challenge yourself to speak up and to add something without requiring a red carpet. You have a duty to challenge yourself too.’”

McBride suggests three additional tactics for being more inclusive to the introverts. 

Send an agenda, and send it in advance. “Introverts need time to process,” she says. “Having an agenda gives them time to consider what they want to contribute.”

During the meeting, the leaders should directly check in with the introverts. “Hey, Sam, what are your thoughts on this?”

After the meeting, ask for their additional input. Or you could invoke a more provocative technique that Rogelberg calls “brainwiring.” For a brief period of time, in complete silence, everyone jots down their ideas — whether the topic is brainstorming, the pros or cons of a proposal, or the reaction to a marketing campaign — and then the ideas are shared and discussed. Especially for those who fear public speaking, this boosts the odds that the best ideas are uncovered. If the meeting is to ratify a decision, brainwiring could lead to a more legitimate consensus, as all of the potential issues have been openly (and safely) aired. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that meetings are not the enemy. They have merit. A good meeting is a reminder that you work with human beings who laugh and think and are made of skin and bones, not algorithms. It was a meeting, after all, that gave us the Declaration of Independence. 

So don’t stop meeting. Meet better.

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