Kill Our Meeting Culture

Business people sleeping in the conference room during a meeting
Business people sleeping in the conference room during a meeting

A while back, I flew to the East Coast on a lovely Sunday morning. I was visiting a college to put final touches on a new initiative. There were a few outstanding items, and a brief one-on-one with the responsible dean was the best way to resolve them. As usual, I'd come alone.

Even though it was a weekend, the dean happily received me. Like me, he wanted those issues to be resolved. But to my astonishment, sixteen other administrators joined him. The room was packed! I was flabbergasted. So my opening comments were: "It's a beautiful Sunday, please take the day off and be with your families."

None of them left. They all stayed.

But here is what really shocked me. The discussion items were minor. In a one-on-one, they would have easily been resolved in less than an hour. But with these sixteen extra administrators in the room, the meeting took over five hours.

As an engineer, this left me puzzled. Add horsepower to an engine and you move faster. Add brainpower and you move slower?

Corporate America is drowning in meetings. To make one thing clear, I am not against communication. Quick one-on-ones can be extremely effective. I am talking about those hour-long recurring meetings, devoid of a clear agenda, and attended by many. I dread them. All my friends dread them. And yet many of us spend all day in such meetings, five days a week

So what causes our excessive meeting culture, and what can we do about it?

First, let me distinguish between horizontal and vertical meetings. Horizontal meetings are team or project meetings, set up to coordinate individual activities. When I worked in a large tech company, those meetings just popped up in my calendar by the dozen. Because they usually took place on a weekly cadence, they were mostly devoid of a clear agenda or clear decision items. Meticulous notes were often sent around that no one really read.

I often asked myself, why do people actually go? Do they have nothing better to do? I suspect we all have an innate fear of being left out. It takes guts not to show up. And co-workers are often dismissive of others who don't attend. So many of us become quite religious about attending our meetings, even if we have no clue what they are all about.

Vertical meetings are not much better. They take place along a chain of command. A team or an individual might meet with their manager, their manager's manager, etc. Often these meetings serve the role of coordination and determining access to resources.

John Donovan, executive vice president at AT&T, defines the role of a manager as "removing roadblocks and recognizing excellence." But most managers don't see their role quite as confined. Since managers thrive on taking credit, they often add new ideas or loop in new people. What better way to claim credit than changing a plan? I have seen this over and over again. Vertical meetings make things more complex.

And complexity begets slowness. Many of us are inspired and are eager to get things done. But once too many people are involved, life becomes complicated. We are all social beings, so we have an innate urge to incorporate everyone's thoughts. And because meetings inform our coworkers of our plans, fear of failure grows. Perfectionism becomes an escape hatch, as does calling more meetings. And simple initiatives quickly become complex. As a result we slow down.

The situation is particularly dire in organizations that are overstaffed. Overstaffed teams, by definition, have free cycles, and those cycles are often spent in excessive meetings. When a slow-down is noticed, management often call for more staff, not less. But as the team size increases, speed doesn't pick up, which may literally lead to a death spiral of ever-slowing progress with ever increasing team sizes. Had those managers instead shrunk their team size, they might have seen the desired effect. But which manager ever asks for a smaller team?

There is a simple fix to our excessive meeting culture, but it is not easy to implement. It's one of these things that are easy to say but hard to do. The fix is: abandon all recurring meetings. I am serious. All! A person may only schedule a meeting if she needs to resolve something; and she may only invite the people necessary to resolve the issue at hand. "If in doubt, leave him out." And if it takes ten minutes to reach resolution, stop the meeting right there. Never ever let a meeting endure past its decision point.

In my experience, this approach is transformational. What I have found is that in the absence of scheduled meetings, most communications are ad hoc and between two or three people. In my company, the common room has become the most popular place for coordination, and most meeting rooms stay empty all day.

When I visit other organizations, I always check out their meeting rooms. Are they empty or crowded with people? Are people's calendars booked with back-to-back meetings? To me, this is a sign of inefficiency.

Professional management consultants often recommend to corporate leadership, "your team needs more communication." Why not instead say, "your team needs less communication"? We might all have a more enjoyable life, not only on Sundays.