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Meetings: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stuck in a meeting again? Third meeting today? Tenth meeting this week?

Does that sound familiar?

According to a study by Harvard Business School CEOs spend a third of their time in meetings, not including the time taken for ‘quick calls’. An additional eight hours (average) was spet on business meals and calls, while the time for ‘short’ alls wasn’t mentioned. Most concerning still, the study found that working alone averaged just six hours per week! 

Although managers often report that meetings are useful, a survey by from that 47% of respondents felt that they had to attend too many meetings.

Then there is the cost of meetings. Actually work out the cost of having 5 staff in a room for an hour each week. Take the cost of employing each individual, work out their hourly rate, than add up all five. Now multiply that by the number of meetings per year. You might be shocked. 

Once you’ve done this once or twice you won’t be surprised that a study Bain & Company found that a “single weekly meeting of midlevel managers was costing one organization $15M a year”!

Here’s the thing. A good meeting can be great. But it is all too easy to have bad meetings.

And often meetings are a way to do bad management. It should be no surprised that managers often are the ones stating that meetings are necessary and useful. They need to know what is going on. Or they are the executives that need to talk to clients, customers and other stakeholders. But that does not mean that a meeting should become the only way you communicate with your team. Because the real cost of meetings, is not just the time that it is scheduled for, but all the other stuff that happens before, after and around it.

The unseen cost of meetings:

  1. The administrative overhead. Scheduling, writing up minutes/notes all takes time. This is often dead time that would not be done if the meeting didn’t occur.
  2. Preparation overhead. Good quality meetings need to be prepared. Reports are often prepped, maybe read before. An agenda is agreed. Desired outcomes are decided and shared. All of these tasks are essential to a good meeting. But if the meeting has no purpose and this happens anyway, that is wasted effort. 
  3. The synchronisation overhead. To get people into a room (or on a call) all at the same time requires everyone to stop. This is fine until you factor in the break-in work this does. This is particularly important when people are in meetings on and off all day. Every time someone gets back to their desk it takes between 15 and 30 minutes to get back into work. Then you have to stay alert enough to notice the calendar ping telling you to get to the next meeting and make sure you spend a few minutes reminding yourself what it is all about. This is why people can feel like they achieve nothing because they had 4 meetings during the day, which in an 8 hour day still leaves 4 huge hours. But when the meetings are all spaced out there is no time to get into the thinking space to do the real deep work. And that ignores the personal cost overhead emotionally, particularly for introverts, of being in these social situations for large portions of the day.
  4. People being late, not paying attention and not sticking to the agenda. We’ve all had meetings where a key person hasn’t attended the meeting. Or people turn up late. No one pays attention. I’m guilty of all of these myself. But I got to that place because I felt like the meetings were pointless and I just needed to get work done!

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: ‘great I’m on a plane so I can get some real work done’, or ‘great I can hide at home and get some real work done’, then your meetings are not working. I’ve worked with people in everything from big business to the smallest startups who could all do with reducing their meetings. 

Meetings to avoid:

  1. Status update meetings. These sit on the calendar every day or every week and generally involve prepped reports that are then readout. Often these are for the benefit of the manager who will defend the existence of the meeting as good for team building and essential for everyone to know what is going on. There is a better way. Reporting is not a full synchronisation activity. Given the costs highlighted, is it really a cost-effective way to make sure everyone knows what is going on? Almost certainly not. If everyone sits their reading emails, then, believe me, it is not working, and however much you think it is essential it isn’t!
  2. Meetings where the boss is asked to make lots of small decisions. This works one-to-one and can be a great way to get unstuck. But when this occurs regularly in team meetings it is normally a symptom of a team, group or business that is not trusting its employees, enabling them or with a clear strategy. If this is going on, you’ve almost certainly got other issues that you are not aware of that you need to handle. 
  3. 30 people in a room, where no one really pays attention. If you have more than 3 people in the room, you are probably not making good use of time. The exception could be full staff meetings but even these often don’t really work particularly well.
  4. Attending a meeting, realising there is nothing to talk about, but then filling the allotted time anyway.

Running great meetings

So you get it, you need better meetings, and fewer of them. But how do you do that? 

Well here are my top tips for meetings that make sense and give your team the tools that they need to make progress rather than holding them back from the real work that they care about.

  1. Always write and share an agenda, with a desired outcome. This may seem like a crazy overhead. But if you have cut down on your meetings, and if this helps you keep your meetings on-topic and finish once the agenda has been covered you will find that the time taken to write and share an agenda is paid back many times over.
  2. Consider who really needs to be there. What topics really need discussing and who needs to be involved? We’ve all struggled making decisions about where to go for dinner when we have a large group. But that is essentially what we do every day when we invite people to a meeting. If you don’t need someone’s input then don’t invite them! If someone attends that really doesn’t need to be there, they will either find the whole thing a waste of time or feel that they have to offer an opinion, even if they don’t really need to. Keep the numbers down and keep decision making to those that really need to know. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t communicate decisions, and regularly revisit who needst o be involved in such discussions. But avoid the default of ‘everyone’ needs to be there.
  3. Park off-topic items. Stick to your agenda, and rein-in off-topic discussions. If the item needs to be discussed, schedule it for another time, and make sure you consider who needs to be there for that topic. Remember that a lot of unhappiness happens because a discussion and decision occurs without the right people in the room. So if it isn’t on the agenda, park it and move on. Then make sure you have the right people involved for that item at another time.
  4. Take notes or minutes and share them. The simple act of sharing written notes can be extraordinarily powerful in making sure that what you thought happened and was agreed really is what everyone else thinks. Don’t rely solely on someone else for minutes, as they may have a different interpretation. Take your own notes.
  5. Follow-up. Use your minutes and notes to follow-up promptly. Ideally, this should be on the same day but sometimes there are specific reasons to delay.


Finally, don’t be afraid of using short one-to-ones rather than having a full-team meeting. It might seem like it is a bigger overhead for you as a manager and leader, but it probably isn’t. You’ll have less chatter and stay more focused. And this is a great way to find out what is really going on with your individual team members, build rapport and have a better understanding of what is really going on and has the potential for causing work blockages down the line.

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