The approach to meetings needs to change

Meetings Are Stupid

Alright, let’s start off with a couple of basics. Hopefully most people understand that:

In short, meetings are generally terrible. But you know what? It gets worse.

A couple of observations before I move towards a nice, visually-stimulating infographic at the end:

1. People need to schedule less meetings: Outlook should have this fucking shit built right into it. Basically, what is the point of a gathering? I’ve been to about 2K meetings in my life that didn’t need to be meetings. They could have been an e-mail, a survey, stopping people in the hallway, whatever. A meeting should be for two reasons:

  • Get people together to launch a new project/idea and kinda throw a lot of specs at the wall about what it should be
  • Updates on progress, but these don’t need to be daily/weekly — they can be monthly or even every two months.

If you want to do daily updates or weekly updates with a team, use something like Yammer or AnswerHub or SharePoint or IDoneThis or whatever you want to use. Consider knowledge management tools where people can update each other on progress in a running format, and people can access that within their own time parameters instead of attending a meeting.

The worst shit is when people over-schedule meetings because they think it increases transparency, and then when fools are called on, they stammer over a couple of lines about how busy they are in their role. That means they have no idea what to say.

2. When you send a meeting invite, put an actual purpose on it and give some context: You always get these meeting invites like “… to discuss Q3 rollout.” What the shit does that mean? Put a little context behind it. Who’s invited? Why? Why now and not last week, or next week? What’s the stated goal of the meeting?

3. Respect people’s time: Went to a “vendor meeting” (third-party trying to upsell some product to a bunch of people in a company) back at McKesson in July 2013. Thing was budgeted for an hour. When a meeting is budgeted for any length of time, you know that when that time gets close, people will start to wrap. End-times are always firm. Opening times? Maybe less so. In this meeting, we spent the first 18 minutes talking about the food on the table, the view from the room, the weather, how busy everyone was, some joke someone had made, etc. This vendor lost 18 minutes. He had prepped for 1 hour, and had 42 minutes to do his thing. People should be able to adapt on stuff like that, but not everyone can. Also, to all the 20 McKesson employees in there — if you weren’t talking about the muffins and the weather, couldn’t those first 18 minutes have been better used in your own life?

4. Keep them tight: Sure, there are deep-dive issues that require long, all-day meetings (although those should be very rare), but in general, no one can focus for that long, so keep your meetings short (30 minutes or so). A person at Minute 52 of a 1-hour meeting is mostly just spouting bullshit or piggybacking on earlier themes; a person at Minute 22 of a 30-minute meeting might have a good idea or two left.

5. Spend the last five minutes actually assigning work from it: You know you all want to hard stop at whatever time the meeting is supposed to end. So, five minutes before that? Stop the meeting and summarize briefly what’s been discussed. Then go around the room and ask everyone what their 1 follow-up item will be. Then let ’em go. That’s it. Pretty simple. The worst shit with meetings is that they end, and then everyone has to go to another meeting, so it takes 2 days for anyone to send around any actionable items, and by then you’ve been to 12 other meetings and you’re like “What the shit meeting was this from?” In short, put the actionable items at the end of the meeting.

6. Encourage new information: There’s a concept called “biased information sampling,” which basically means people come to a meeting and essentially repeat shit that everyone in the meeting already knows. That’s not a meeting. That’s an Intranet or an e-mail thread or something else. So if you’re running a meeting, encourage new information. Have a conversation with the attendees. What are the challenges? How could this get done faster? How could it make more money? (That’s the point, right?) Have a conversation. Be organic. It can work.

7. Replace conference calls, or kill them outright. KILL THEM WITH FIRE. Everyone knows conference calls are abject bullshit. People are straight munching on donuts on the other end. No one prepares for them thoroughly because they’re a joke. “I gotta hop on a call!” is maybe the worst thing a person can say to me in an office. Never schedule conference calls. If you have remote teams, use video. Video forces people to be accountable, prepared, and it creates eye contact. Yes, it can be off-task and there can be a lot of small talk at the front — “Oh, nice painting in your room, Jeremy!” — but face-to-face interaction is everything for most people.

Alright, those are seven tips from a person that’s probably only run about four meetings in his generally pathetic professional existence. Now here’s that infographic I promised you. Some of the numbers are brutal:

Meetings Are A Mess

Ted Bauer


  1. Hi Ted, love the garbage collectors analogy! I discovered some really frightening stats via HBR on the costs of meetings – how about a 2 hour weekly meeting costing £6m a year?. Yup, that’s the true cost…

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