Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting got me thinking about many other problems that lead to unnecessary or ineffective meetings. Initially, I just jotted down a few thoughts. But I clearly had some unresolved gripes to get off my chest, as this post ended up longer than my original summary.
This post divides up the problems with meetings into two broad categories:
- unnecessary meetings; and
- necessary but ineffective meetings.
Many meetings are, frankly, unnecessary and a waste of everyone’s time. While communication is indeed essential, a meeting may not necessarily be the best tool for this.
Four reasons why I think unnecessary meetings persist are because:
- most people speak 3x faster than they can type;
- meetings can provide cover for decisions;
- meetings are an easy form of work; and
- social pressures sustain unnecessary meetings.
Most people speak 3x faster than they can type
A quick Google search shows that the average speeds in words per minute (wpm) for the following activities:
- Speaking: 150 wpm
- Typing: 40 wpm
- Reading: 250 wpm
The typical person therefore speaks three times faster than they can type!
This mismatch between speaking and typing speeds goes a long way to explaining why meetings used solely to convey information in a single direction — the quintessential “unnecessary meeting”1To be clear, while I think most unidirectional informational meetings are unnecessary, not all are. For example, a meeting to announce mass layoffs or a big restructure is far more appropriate than an email. Moreover, not all informational meetings are unidirectional. For example, a client interview is an informational meeting — the client has all the relevant information and needs to convey it to their advisor. But the client doesn’t know what is relevant and needs the advisor’s help in extracting it. So the exchange is not fully unidirectional, and a meeting may be much more efficient than email. Note, however, that in informational meetings, the opportunity to ask questions may sometimes exist more in theory than in practice. — are so prevalent. For the person conveying information, it’s at least 3x faster to deliver information via a meeting than via email. (And composing an email usually takes people longer than it does to merely type the letters.) So from the speaker’s point of view, the meeting is efficient.
But from the listener’s point of view, the meeting is inefficient. If they’d gotten the information in an email, they could have read it at 250 wpm. In a meeting, however, their listening speed is constrained by the speaker’s speaking speed of 150 wpm. And let’s not forget the time spent shuffling to and from the meeting, time lost waiting for others to join, and the context switching costs as the meeting interrupts whatever they were previously doing. So the meeting is inefficient from the listener’s point of view.
From the organisation’s point of view, too, pure informational meetings tend to be inefficient. Admittedly, speakers may be more senior than listener such that their time is more valuable to the organisation. However, this generally won’t be enough to counteract the degree by which the listeners outnumber the speaker(s).
Meetings provide cover
Another reason why unnecessary meetings proliferate is because they provide cover for decisions in two ways.
First, there’s no written record of most meetings, especially internal ones. Even when meeting minutes are taken, they won’t capture everything and will leave plenty of room for plausible deniability. The lack of any meeting record is one reason why people who want to avoid accountability for decisions love meetings. If you start recording these meetings, some individuals will likely become much less eager to hold or attend them. (I’m not suggesting you should record all your meetings, though. There are also drawbacks such as inhibiting the free flow of ideas and eroding staff morale.)
The second way meetings provide cover is by shifting responsibility to “the group”. I’ve worked in organisations where lines of accountability were clear and could not be shifted. The lawyer of record for a case could consult colleagues for views, but always remained responsible for the case. I’ve also worked in organisations where decision-making was more group-based. An individual uncertain about a course of action would hold a meeting and go with what “the group” decided.
There are pros and cons to both approaches. The former type of organisation tended to have far fewer meetings2I should also point out that the “clear accountability” workplaces I worked in required people to record billable hours, which was another factor that likely contributed to them having fewer meetings. and more siloed decision-making. The latter tended to have far more meetings and more dispersed decision-making. But you don’t want the group weighing in on every decision, so the trick is getting the balance right.
Meetings are an easy form of work
The two reasons above explain why people may be biased to convening a meeting even when it isn’t necessary. But a meeting requires more than one person — why do participants agree to attend unnecessary meetings?
Well, meetings are a pretty easy form of work, particularly if you’re a passive attendee. Contribution is usually optional and expectations for attendees to participate tend to decline as the number of attendees goes up. The informational content of a meeting will be lower than what’s in a written document that takes an equivalent time to read (since, as noted above, people generally read faster than others can speak). So you’re likely taking in less information in a meeting than you would alone at your desk.
Meetings also contain a lot of informality as people joke around, make small talk, and occasionally meander off-topic. This isn’t necessarily bad — such informality helps build working relationships — but it’s part of what makes meetings an “easy” form of work. For some, the fact that meetings are inefficient and lack informational content is a feature, not a bug.
Social pressures sustain unnecessary meetings
Last but not least, social pressure plays a key role in sustaining unnecessary meetings. If someone, especially a senior person, proposes a meeting, others will be extremely reluctant to publicly question the need for it, even if most don’t think the meeting is needed. Worse, a repeating meeting that’s become unnecessary may persist even when no one thinks it’s needed anymore because everyone mistakenly believes other people still want the meeting.
This is an example of pluralistic ignorance, where individuals conform to a perceived group norm even if that differs from both their personal opinion and the group members’ actual opinions. We only see what people do, not what they think, which can lead to information cascades. The phenomenon is not unique to the workplace. For example, multiple studies show that college students drink more than they are comfortable with because they consistently overestimate how much their peers drink. The result is a drinking culture that most students believe is excessive. Similarly, other studies show that employees tend to work longer hours and take less flexibility than they want to partly because they misperceive the group norm. The result is a culture of overwork.
Pluralistic ignorance can therefore lead to a reinforcing meeting cycle. We see others holding and agreeing to unnecessary meetings so we misperceive how much others want meetings. The result is a proliferation of unnecessary meetings.
Necessary but ineffective meetings
Although unnecessary meetings are all too common, some remain necessary. For example, some complex issues require input from multiple people who would all benefit from hearing each others’ views, and a meeting may well be the most efficient way to collaborate.
Yet necessary meetings can still be frustratingly ineffective. Death by Meeting outlined two reasons: a lack of conflict and multiple unclear purposes mixed up in a single lengthy meeting. But I think there are at least three more causes of ineffective meetings:
- lack of preparation;
- poor chairing; and
- wider organisational problems.
Lack of preparation
You can often “wing it” in a short meeting. Even if you can’t, people usually don’t get too outraged over 30 minutes wasted here and there. (Sadly, most of us have become inured to short, ineffective meetings.)
But as the meeting length and number of attendees increase, so too do the time costs involved and the risks of it veering off-course. Without preparation, a meeting can easily lose its way.
The first step of preparation is deciding whether a meeting is needed and which issues to raise.3Even though Lencioni in Death by Meeting argued against having pre-determined, fixed agendas for “Weekly Tactical” meetings, his suggested structure — having a ‘lightning round’ and progress review before diving into the tactical issues of the week — is itself a loose agenda. Additionally, for strategic meetings, Lencioni recommended dedicating two hours per issue and having participants prepare for the discussion in advance. This, in itself, is not an easy task and is one that people frequently underestimate.
The next step is inviting the right people, which again involves a delicate balance. On one hand, you want to get input from all relevant people and you don’t want make anyone feel excluded. On the other hand, the more people you invite, the greater the coordination challenge and the greater the risk that you’ll end up wasting someone’s time.
The chair should also ensure that participants can usefully contribute at the meeting by providing required reading materials or explaining the background in a covering email. For reasons explained above, meetings are not usually a very efficient way of conveying information. Participants should therefore read any background information and consider it before attending the meeting. In complex discussions, especially technical ones, lack of preparation can result in significant confusion and miscommunication.
An organisational culture that tolerates inadequate preparation will inevitably lead to ineffective meetings. Spending valuable meeting time catching people up on what they could have read beforehand is not just inefficient — it’s most wasteful for those who did bother to prepare, which destroys their future incentives to prepare.
The effectiveness of the chair significantly influences the effectiveness of the overall meeting. Conducting an effective meeting is, at its core, a complex coordination challenge. And the more active participants a meeting has, the greater the challenge. Yet organisations chronically underestimate the difficulty of this challenge and will let almost anyone convene and chair a meeting whenever they choose.
The chair of a meeting has multiple key responsibilities:
- Preparation. As explained above, before the meeting the convenor/chair must prepare for it. This includes deciding what issues to raise, who to invite, the length of the meeting, and what preparation to require of attendees.
- Guiding the conversation. During the meeting, the chair may have to actively guide the conversation to keep it on track and on time. This may include “mining for conflict” (as Lencioni points out) or interrupting people who dominate or go off on tangents.
- Clarifying and summarising. Though not always needed, an effective chair may help everyone get on the same page by summarising the discussion or asking a participant to clarify their point. This coordination role is especially valuable in: larger and longer meetings (where it’s easy to lose track), virtual meetings (where audio issues interfere with understanding) or meetings where participants have varying levels of expertise.
Most organisations fail to appreciate the importance of the chair’s role. In some meetings, who’s chairing is not even clear and the meeting may descend into disorder. In other meetings, the person chairing is the same person presenting information and taking notes, which can be too much of a burden for one person.
Moreover, the skill of chairing is rarely taught. While management or leadership courses may teach some elements of chairing, many firms throw junior staff members into chairing meetings and expect them to figure it out as they go. It’s funny — firms are often reluctant to let junior employees command any resources, yet will happily hand over the reins of a large meeting to the same employee, letting them indirectly command many valuable hours of staff time.
Wider organisational issues
A meeting is a venue for people from different parts of an organisation to come together. As such, meetings can serve as a microcosm of the organisation itself. Wider organisational weaknesses can therefore leak into its meetings, undermining their effectiveness.
For example, unclear roles or lack of leadership in the wider organisation may seep through into its meetings. Decisions are delayed or avoided as people hold ineffective meeting after ineffective meeting, striving for a consensus-based decision that may never be reached — and ultimately not needed. Similarly, interpersonal conflicts or politics within an organisation will lead to ineffective meetings if participants are more focused on seeking power for themselves over the organisation’s goals.
Though these issues can be disruptive, they are not unique to meetings. You’d likely encounter the same disruptions in email threads or other communication channels.
How can we improve meetings?
While we could all do better to recognise the importance of meetings and the costs that they can impose, the specific steps you can take will depend on your role within the organisation.
Organisational leaders could set the tone by refusing to tolerate a lack of preparation. Required reading should actually be required. Leaders could also consider providing training for chairing meetings. Even basic, in-house training would raise awareness of the importance of the chair’s role and let chairs know what is expected of them.
Meeting convenors should question the necessity of a meeting before convening it. There should be a (rebuttable) presumption against unidirectional informational meetings. Convenors should also decide who the chair should be (and make sure they’re aware of it!), taking care not to overburden them with too many responsibilities. In turn, chairs should prepare for the meeting and distribute materials in advance. During the meeting, they should be ready to guide the discussion and clarify or summarise points as needed.
Meeting invitees or participants may gently question the need for a meeting if they’re brave enough — though I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone who is not. If they notice the absence of a clear chair, they could step in to fill that vacancy as best as they can. And, of course, they should always come prepared.
Finally, since meetings are a microcosm of the wider organisation, you could follow all the advice above and still suffer through terrible meetings caused by broader organisational problems. Unfortunately, I don’t have any silver bullet. There are good reasons why meetings are so widely hated. Maybe you can take some comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.
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- 1To be clear, while I think most unidirectional informational meetings are unnecessary, not all are. For example, a meeting to announce mass layoffs or a big restructure is far more appropriate than an email. Moreover, not all informational meetings are unidirectional. For example, a client interview is an informational meeting — the client has all the relevant information and needs to convey it to their advisor. But the client doesn’t know what is relevant and needs the advisor’s help in extracting it. So the exchange is not fully unidirectional, and a meeting may be much more efficient than email. Note, however, that in informational meetings, the opportunity to ask questions may sometimes exist more in theory than in practice.
- 2I should also point out that the “clear accountability” workplaces I worked in required people to record billable hours, which was another factor that likely contributed to them having fewer meetings.
- 3Even though Lencioni in Death by Meeting argued against having pre-determined, fixed agendas for “Weekly Tactical” meetings, his suggested structure — having a ‘lightning round’ and progress review before diving into the tactical issues of the week — is itself a loose agenda. Additionally, for strategic meetings, Lencioni recommended dedicating two hours per issue and having participants prepare for the discussion in advance.