Today we are kicking off our deep dive into the Six Dysfunctions of the Meeting. Meetings are a widely despised part of office culture - Steven Rogelberg has documented that executives routinely report that 50-70% of meetings are a waste of time. But why are they so hated? Today we start with one of the easiest to see: there are way too many meetings.
The amount of time spent in meetings has been growing steadily since 2000. Currently, middle managers spent at least 35% of their time in meetings and execs spend 40%. In knowledge work organizations, it is estimated that 15% of total employee time is taken up by meetings. What is generating all of this gathering? Is it good or bad or both? Most importantly, why is my calendar always so full?
In 2014, Bain & Company Partners Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm, and Gregory Caimi undertook a time-use study for a large, anonymous corporation. They downloaded and analyzed the company’s corpus of Outlook data, looking at everything from broad trends in time use to estimates of collaboration between departments to specific dysfunctions like double-booking time slots and multitasking during meetings. One startling fact rapidly emerged - a monster weekly executive meeting, dubbed “Excom”, was taking up an incredible amount of time from the entire organization.
To maintain the anonymity of the company, the team didn’t share all of the calculations, but here is the available data. Ostensibly, the weekly meeting included only the executive team each week. These are expensive resources, but it seems like a reasonable use of time for the company leaders to convene on a regular basis to discuss pressing issues facing the business. Preparation for Excom turned out to be extensive, however, including multiple meetings with the executive team and 11 business unit heads. In total, the meeting itself and the first-level prep time accounted for 7,000 hours of meeting time per year!
This may seem like a lot, but unfortunately, we’re just getting started. To prepare for getting grilled by the execs, it turned out the business unit leaders met with their senior advisors to ensure that they had all necessary answers at the ready. On average, each business unit spent 1,800 person-hours per year on these prep meetings for a grand total of 20,000 annually.
Sounds like a lot, right? The researchers didn’t stop there - they next discovered that preparation for those meetings spawned 3,000 person-hours per team across 21 teams. Those meetings, of course, spawned even more meetings - 210 per week accounting for 210,000 hours per year.
If you’ve lost track of the carnage at this point, I don’t blame you. The final tally is: 300,000 hours of time per year spent on one meeting! That’s the equivalent of 150 full-time employees devoted solely to Excom!! Assuming an average fully-loaded employee cost of $100 per hour, that’s $30 million per year!!! And this is only the time that shows up in Outlook; it doesn’t include the time before all of these meetings spent preparing graphs or talking points.
Not all of us work in organizations that even have 300,000 person-hours to spend in a year, much less in the service of one meeting. But most of us are swept up in similar dynamics, especially as organizations grow over time. When Bain & Company performed a time-use survey in conjunction with analytics tool Volometrix at 17 large corporations, they discovered that the creation of every full time Manager position within an organization actually needs to be accounted for as 1.5 heads. Essentially, there is a 50% tax imposed on the rest of the company in the form of extra meeting and review time from support staff. Directors are even more expensive—they are essentially 2.6 heads (a 160% tax) and by the time you reach EVP, that ratio is up to 4.2. Each additional layer in the organization is generating its own costs and complexity.
There is a whole crop of calendar optimization tools on the market. Some of them reduce the back-and-forth of scheduling external meetings, others focus on optimally packing internal schedules. Honestly, we think a lot of them are pretty great. There is real productivity lost to poorly scheduled meetings and there is a lot of time to be saved just by solving the calendar Tetris problem. But 300,000 hours is still 300,000 hours no matter how cleanly or elegantly you arrange it.
Luckily, there is plenty of dead wood to trim. The Bain researchers estimated that companies could save roughly 20% of their time by streamlining or canceling meetings. So, how can you achieve those savings in your own meetings budget?
As we discussed, meetings emerge organically from the complexity of the organization at any given level and then snowball down the org chart to encompass an ever-greater burden on those below. As we saw with Excom, every gathering of executives, whether recurring or ad-hoc, has the opportunity to generate preparatory or follow-up meetings with their subordinates leading to multiple meetings with their subordinates, and so on down the chain. These are not easy forces to resist. In the $30 million meeting example above, the researchers also found that a paltry 20% of meeting time throughout the organization was spent on collaboration between departments. The remaining 80% was spent coordinating the departments themselves, attempting to keep a handle on the inherent complexity.
Some companies have responded to results like this with even more bureaucracy. Amazon is famous for requiring detailed meeting memos that are read during the first five minutes of a meeting. This ensures both that the person calling the meeting has done their homework and that the other attendees are up to speed on the topic within a predictable time frame. Other proposed solutions include requiring 2nd level approvals for meetings that go over 30 minutes or have more than 7 attendees and even an annual budgeting system for meeting time. By acting as a meetings tax, these schemes disincentivize low-value meetings. Still, they should be applied sparingly - time spent seeking approvals for meetings is time that could be spent doing more productive things.
Those are extreme examples and few of us have the formal organizational power necessary to make such changes (CEOs, take heed!). Here are a few meeting-saving tips that can be implemented at any level:
A defined outcome is critical to running an efficient and effective meeting. Purposeless meetings tend to spawn additional follow-on meetings as there is no social contract requiring attendees to reach a specific goal. If your meeting doesn’t have a purpose or if you have a recurring meeting whose purpose won’t be fulfilled by holding a specific occurence of that meeting, take it off the calendar!
A meeting’s purpose can shift over time if it’s not explicitly called out. You should periodically review your recurring meetings to ensure that the desired outcomes are the same and that the current attendee list is still in alignment with those outcomes. Remember that it is far easier to cancel and recreate a meeting with a new title than it is to disinvite people from an existing meeting.
Getting rid of meetings entirely is not our goal. Some meetings should, in fact, be longer than most organizations currently devote to them. If your meeting has a generative component (brainstorming or strategizing) or is focused on prioritization (goal setting or project planning), you may want to play around with protecting more time on the calendar for these complex activities. We will cover these another time.
Conversely, there are a number of meeting types that are ripe for the axe. As you start to think about triaging your meetings, here are a few common meeting types to pay special attention to:
The very first type of meeting purpose to discuss (and toss out) is It’s on the calendar. That is not a purpose, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless you can find a “because” for your meeting, don’t have it.
As simple as that may sound, many meetings do not stand up to this type of scrutiny, especially if they have “Status Meeting” somewhere in their title. These recurring meetings often start off with concrete goals such as providing a set time and space for sharing information, building camaraderie, or making decisions. Over time, habit takes over and they begin to occur simply because everyone is used to them.
Not all of these meetings need to be canceled, but each one needs to be re-evaluated (and, likely, reconstituted) in light of its original goals. For example, refocusing a shambling weekly team meeting on is original purpose - say, making the necessary decisions to move product development forward - could take a number of decision meetings off of the calendar throughout the rest of the week while simultaneously freeing up time to have a weekly team lunch for building camaraderie.
Often, the purpose of a meeting is to serve as a deadline. We can divide these into two categories: Pure (“Get it Done”) & Contingent (“Get it Done So We Can Talk About It”).
A Pure Deadline Meeting is set either with or by a stakeholder and is on the calendar purely as a forcing function to get the desired work completed prior to the meeting. An example of this might be Monthly Sales Report: once the report has been created, it speaks for itself. Don’t forget to cancel these meetings as soon as the work has been completed - their goal has already been accomplished.
A Contingent Deadline Meeting is one in which the pre-work is absolutely necessary for a discussion that still needs to be had. Think, Q1 Performance Review. There’s no point in meeting until the work has actually been done. Don’t forget to cancel these if the work has not been completed. The rescheduling is its own punishment—no one needs to sit in the room while the person who didn’t do their work vamps for 45 minutes.
An offshoot of the Contingent Deadline meeting is one in which the meeting organizer needs to ensure that certain information is absorbed by the meeting attendees, usually on a regular basis. These are the types of meetings that beg the question, Couldn’t this just have been an email? The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, No because you’re too busy to read it. If you’re in a meeting where everyone goes around the room to report out their individual status, you are in an Email Meeting.
While it’s hard to dig under the hood of every single meeting that rolls up into Excom, it’s a safe bet that a pretty good chunk of the 300,000 is Email Meeting time. The reading out of statuses and the reviewing of results at various levels is ripe for consolidation and elimination. The review of data is not best done in a group. Attendees should do that on their own schedule, saving discussion time to debate the insights and conclusions to pass up the chain.
It’s easy to despise Email Meetings, but we need to acknowledge the very real role that they play in transmitting essential information throughout the organization. The average office worker receives well over 100 emails per day and most executives receive double that amount. There’s no reason to believe that any particular email can claw its way to the top of everyone’s pile unaided, no matter how timely or relevant. Sometimes you do have to gather people to ensure the critical messages make it through.
The Amazon model outlined above can be helpful to untangling Email Meetings. Emailing the information ahead of time and then ensuring that the attendees read that report in the first five minutes of the meeting naturally enforces the deadline. Then, you can make the rest of the meeting valuable by devoting that time to actual discussion and debate around a dynamic set of topics that will naturally emerge from the details. You don’t need to be a CEO to mandate this practice - once people see how effective it can be, word will start to spread.
Meetings are an important part of our work lives and they’re not going away any time soon. But bad meetings don’t need to be a part of the landscape. Keep a close eye on the purpose of any meeting that you are calling, especially if it’s a recurring meeting. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and ask not only if a meeting is achieving that purpose but if each given part of a meeting is moving you towards your goal. If not, switch things up!
Also, if you are a company leader, it is critically important to absorb the lesson of Excom. No matter whether it was riveting and well-run or boring and purposeless, the meeting time itself was less than 1% of the entire workload associated with Excom. When you tally up the costs and benefits of your meetings don’t forget to factor in all of the ancillary work that they generate. Your colleagues, and their calendars, will thank you.
Got a choppable type of meeting you think we missed? Drop us a line.