The gravest meeting planning sin

Meeting Planning

Let’s talk about meeting planning for a second.

Find 100 random people in 100 random industries and line ’em up. Then ask ’em “What’s the worst thing about work?” My guess at the responses:

  • “My salary’s not high enough considering I put this place on my back every day!”
  • “I know more than my boss and he’s a wanker to boot!”
  • “I’m always so slammed and busy!”
  • “Too many meetings!”

With the exception of Bullet Point No. 4 — which is very real — most of this is just chest-pounding bullshit. (Also known as: “How most people approach the idea of work.”)

But on meetings, there’s some legitimacy to how awful they are. You could argue that the term “meeting planning” is laughable, actually. If you’ve ever been to a meeting, they don’t often appear planned at all. That’s kind of the first, and biggest, issue here. In fact, let’s start there.

Meeting planning: What does a typical meeting look like?

Based on semi-scientific analyses of 12+ years in corporate America, here’s what I got:

A bunch of people hastily shuffle in making generic small talk. One or two have pens or notepads; no one else does. The highest-ranking person in the meeting, Captain Suck A Dick (that was a trivia team name I heard last night), barges in screeching about how his last meeting ran late. The organizer, who is maybe the fourth highest-ranking person in the room, tries to get things going. Initially, this is to no avail. Small talk persists.

Finally the organizer gets it moving, typically by setting the time window — 30 minutes, hard stop — as opposed to setting the context or reason for the meeting. The organizer speaks for a while, then kicks it to “the group for discussion,” and mostly everyone says the exact same thing the last person said with a slight variation in words/tone to appear unique. At 28 minutes and 47 seconds, the organizer hastily tries to wrap. Action items will be “sent around,” likely days later — when no one even remembers what the hell this meeting was about.

In the course of all this, here’s also what’s happening:

  • 4-5 people in the meeting have no idea why they were specifically invited
  • 2-3 people are checking email on their laptop or phone (under the desk)
  • 3-4 people are entirely checked out and thinking about another meeting or something they saw on Netflix
  • There’s at least a 12% chance someone is eating
  • At least 15 buzzwords will be said in the 30 minutes
  • Someone will repeatedly reference a person named “Dave” with no context as to who “Dave” is

Does this seem like meeting planning? Or does it seem like a waste of time? Yep.

Meeting planning: Why does this happen so poorly?

I can answer this one pretty quickly for you. Most companies, generally and backed by research, are:

That’s a tough three-way intersection. In short? No one knows what they’re supposed to work on, or in what order they should work on it. But if those real, legitimate questions come up, there’s a standard, easy answer. “Too busy! So slammed! Drowning!” That cycle repeats about 573 times and you know what? That’s now a fiscal year. You made money (yay!), but oftentimes it was largely by accidental chance.

This is where meeting planning falls. Meetings have been so bad and so off-task for so long that no one really cares. Everyone just expects them to be a waste of time, a joke, and a tire fire. The real work will get done elsewhere. We essentially lowered the bar so low and then accepted said lowness, and now we’re just like — collectively — “Meh.” If someone gives us shit for an off-task meeting, we’ll talk about how busy we were that specific week. “The Tompkins account had an urgent client need, Jack! I was swamped!” Welcome to 2016’s white-collar working world: where “urgency” replaced “priority.”

We’re about to arrive at the meeting planning sin, but first … a quick interlude.

Meeting planning: Meetings and bureaucracy

We love to pound our chests about entrepreneurship, but in reality, bureaucracy is massively on the rise in the first world. Why? Simple answer.

People want to make money, get perks, and have benefits … but most people don’t want to “own” something or make decisions. 

Meetings are the easiest representation of that. If you can make your $125K/year and just sit in aimless meetings every week, most people would say: “Fuck yea! Hell of a deal!” Bureaucracy exists to let people never do anything and still be conventionally successful. Meetings exist for the same reason.


But meetings basically got this bad because of one cardinal sin about them, which is…

Meeting planning: The accountability problem

I’ve absolutely never understood this.

The only accountability on any meeting — ever — is to the organizer. That’s it. The organizer is the only one who’s even expected to prepare in most cases. As a result, most people show up barely knowing what it’s about. If you ever called someone on this, you’d get back two responses:

  • Professional response: “It wasn’t my meeting, Matt.”
  • What they want to say: “Fuck you. I do the real work around here, Matt. These meetings are pointless and we all know it…”

This is where meeting planning dies in the flood. The only responsibility, accountability, and need for preparation typically falls to the organizer. Captain Suck A Dick, who’s probably the only person in the meeting that can actually move an agenda forward, has no accountability or need to prepare either.

In almost every meeting context, then, you’re essentially leaving the organizer on an island. They have to:

  • Prepare
  • Define the context
  • Overcome the small talk
  • Drive the discussion somewhere
  • Assign the action items

And basically, no one else has to do anything except “accept/decline” and/or half-ass an e-mail back once the action items come out.

How is this effective meeting planning?

So what would be effective meeting planning?

You might read the above and screech at me: “But the organizer should have the responsibility!” That’s true, yea. No argument at base. But then why does it need to be a meeting if the other 5 people involved aren’t going to do anything? Couldn’t the organizer just put together some work and not involve 5 other people?

If you want better meeting planning, here’s what I’d recommend.

Before the meeting: Ask a couple of questions to start.

  • What is the point of calling this meeting?
  • Does it really need to be a meeting?

If both of these seem kosher, move forward. Prepare a one-paragraph rationale for the meeting (an elevator pitch) along with an agenda and any key documents. Attach all that to the invite and explain in the body what the hell this tire fire will be about.

At the meeting: Start on time. Cut the small talk. If it’s 30 minutes, break it like this:

  • 5 intro: purpose and problem trying to solve
  • 5 background context: what does everyone need to know to talk about this?
  • 12 discussion: what are people’s thoughts?
  • 8 wrap: what’s next? + action items

After the meeting: Send recap of context/discussion. Provide action items with specific dates. Unless absolutely necessary, don’t schedule a follow-up meeting. The “meeting to talk about meeting again” culture sucks.

The bigger issue with meeting planning

We are often extremely rigorous and detailed about money and finances within companies. It’s almost a religion. The Spreadsheet Mentality! But we’re terrible with time. We do useless crap all day that provides virtually no value-add and we regularly confuse “quantity” with “quality.”

If you want better meeting planning, then, do this: be passionate and rigorous about how you approach time, not just money.

Any other thoughts on meeting planning?

Ted Bauer