A Meeting of the Minds: Why So Many Meetings are a Waste of Time & Money – PEN September 2017

If you haven’t seen this video before (or even if you have), it’s worth 3.5 minutes.  It’s extremely funny and it illustrates the point that conference calls (really all meetings) can be terribly inefficient, unproductive, and expensive.


Think about it.  How many meetings (or conference calls or videoconferences) have you participated in recently that fell short of its goals – either didn’t accomplish anything (or not enough), had the wrong people in them, lacked focus or clarity, or just took too long?  I’ll bet quite a few.  The cost of poorly managed meetings – in terms of wasted time, energy, and opportunities – really do add up for organizations…


Do the math.  The next meeting you’re in, go around the room and mentally add up the hourly cost of every person in the room (or on the phone line, whichever the case).  If a meeting has six people in it, for example, each making say $60,000 a year, that one-hour meeting costs $173.  If a meeting has 12 people in it, each making $100,000 a year, that one-hour meeting costs $575!  And if a meeting has eight people in it, each making $300,000 a year (say the executive team of a decent-sized business), that one-hour meeting costs a whopping $1150!


Then extrapolate that out.  If an average worker in an average-sized organization has, say, four meetings a day (I know some of your schedules carry many more than four a day, some maybe little less), the average worker then has (gulp) 1000 meetings a year!  At a $60,000 salary, that’s $28,800 a year tied up in meetings (with a $100,000 salary, $48,000 is burned in meetings).  For a 500-employee organization, that’s over $24 million in meetings a year!


You get the point.  Meetings carry a huge price tag.  So they had better be productive.  But I’m guessing that many meetings you recently participated in aren’t.


According to Jeff Haden of Inc. Magazine: “any meeting that won’t directly generate revenue or cost savings – either in the form of a key decision or a concrete plan of action – is a complete waste of money.”  In an article published last July (Why 99% of Meetings are a Complete Waste of Money), Haden goes on to share seven deadly sins (my words, not his) of meetings.  I’ll share those and a few more that were offered by PEN’s own Gayle Noakes to make it a round 10 (well, actually 11, but close enough)…


1) Information is part of the agenda.  Haden claims that no meeting agenda should ever include the words “information,” “recap,” “review,” or “discuss.”  Meetings shouldn’t be about listening to presentations, reviewing data, or sharing information – those can and should be sent in advance.  Meetings should only be about making decisions, solving problems, or taking action.  Haden: “holding a meeting [just] to share information wastes the entire group’s time and the company’s money.”


2) The meeting length is a standard default.  When was the last meeting you attended NOT scheduled for a round number – 30 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes, maybe two hours?  Calendars are all formatted in 30- or 60-minute chunks, and we’ve all come to expect nice round numbers for our meeting length.  Nevermind that a meeting scheduled for an hour could have been successfully completed in 37 minutes.  Stuff expands to fill the time, and most meetings run to about their full scheduled length (if not beyond, which is another level of complete waste…and disrespect).


Haden suggests that meeting organizers should decide in advance how long a meeting should last solely on the basis of what you need to accomplish – and nothing more.  Schedule the meeting accordingly, and then end on time.  If you need 10 minutes, schedule 10 minutes.  If you need 25, schedule 25.  And stick to it.


3) People are allowed to be late.  This is one of my Pet Peeves.  Think how many meetings begin with waiting.  This is how it usually plays out…for any given meeting, a few participants get there early.  They chat, but a few are running late.  So you wait.  And wait a little more.  The leader finally starts the meeting, maybe three or four or six minutes late, only to have the stragglers wander in and you have to either recap or start over.


A good meeting practice is when it’s time to start a meeting, start it.  It respects those who are on time, it’s significantly more efficient than creating idle time for everyone sitting there waiting, and – after a few times of arriving late and getting “the look” – team members will begin to get the point that meetings start on time.  Even better: set a ground rule up front (in your team, your department, your organization) that culturally you begin meetings on time.


4) People are allowed to “think out loud.”  Haden suggests that anyone who says “I’m just thinking out loud” should be immediately cut off, because they should have done their thinking before the meeting, coming in prepared after reviewing information in advance.  I’m personally not as sold on Haden’s suggestion on this one, because I think that some people process information and participate in different ways (and I also think that some meetings have value in more generative discussions, intended to work through problems, find creative solutions or action steps, and brainstorm).  But his point is this: if people really aren’t prepared for the discussion – either they didn’t do their homework or they’re just tossing around half-baked ideas just because they feel the need to talk or to seem smart – then their meandering thoughts chew up others’ time.  His point is you should expect people to come in prepared with fully-formed thoughts or at least initial positions.


5) Accountability was never established. I love this insight from Haden.  He says: “great meetings result in decisions, but a decision isn’t really a decision if it’s never fully carried out.  Establish what, who, and when.”  If there is no clear owner for a next step and/or no deadline for completing it, there is no real responsibility in moving the decision forward.  So end each meeting with a summary of action items: who is supposed to accomplish what by when.


6) A lengthy recap is necessary.  The only recap you need at the end of a meeting is a list of action items, capturing what was decided, what will get done by whom and by when.  That’s it.  It’s a complete waste of time to give a play-by-play of all the things covered in a meeting.  It’s a good idea to send minutes out after the meeting, but at the conclusion of the meeting itself, just summarize the action items and next steps and end it.


7) The goal is to improve “team cohesion.”  Haden claims that, while teams do need to work well together, they don’t need meetings to do it – meetings should never be used for “bonding” or building relationships.  Haden: “Great business relationships are created when people work together toward a common goal and are able to count on one another to do their part, meet commitments, and get things done.”  In other words, professional relationships develop when you produce outcomes, learn to trust one another, and achieve meaningful goals together.  Meetings aren’t the vehicle for doing that.


I generally agree with Haden on this one, but I’ll offer one practice that I do like that the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) “Level 10” meetings include: begin each regularly-occurring staff/team meeting with a brief “segue.”  It’s a quick round-robin to give every team member a chance to share something personal – something going on with their family, weekend plans, an upcoming trip, a struggle they’re having, whatever.  It’s completely up to the individual what he/she shares, but it reminds teams that we’re all human and have lives outside of work.  I wouldn’t do a segue for quick, focused 15-minute problem solving meetings, but for regular staff meetings, it’s a great way to build relationships.

Haden’s seven insightful practices will indeed help make meetings more productive.  But to his list, I’ll add four more that all come from Gayle Noakes in her May PEN breakfast discussion (to download a video and view it on demand, visit here and scroll down to May 10, 2017).  Noakes recommends:


8) Decide if you should even have a meeting!  This is listed as #8, but probably should be #1: don’t just have a meeting to have a meeting.  Think about what you’re trying to accomplish and determine if a meeting is the right vehicle to get you there.  Maybe an email, a phone call, or just a quick 2-minute hallway discussion with someone is what you really need rather than a costly meeting.


9) Determine who should be at the meeting.  Good point.  Think of all the meetings you’ve attended and wondered just why you were there.  Many leaders over-invite “just in case” you may need someone there.  Give some thought as to who you really need at the meeting, and invite only them.


10) Set the meeting up appropriately. For in-person meetings, the best arrangement is a U-shape room – it facilitates balanced participation and provides good sightlines for eye contact.  For teleconferences, set ground rules like speaking one at a time (that works in person, too!), using round robins to get everyone’s input (not just the talkative ones), and so forth.


Before creating an agenda, create a meeting outline.  Outlines should include the name of the meeting, the issue you’re addressing or decision you desire, what kind of meeting is it, a list of who should attend, any pre-work or advance information needed, and the meeting date and time.  The outline should also capture the meeting objective, which answers the question “what will you and the meeting participants have when you are done with the meeting?” (hint: not what you’ll do, but what you’ll have).  You’re looking for an outcome – a decision, an action item, a next step.  Define success before you design the meeting.


Then, of course, create an agenda.  Agendas should include timing for each item, the leader of each item, what materials are needed, and what action is desired.


Thinking through these parameters – room setup, a meeting outline, and agenda – will improve dialogue and create a better chance of achieving your outcomes.


10.5) Get the meeting started successfully.  Noakes mentions several very simple things that get meetings started on the right foot, such as be in the room (or on the line) before everyone else, make sure the room is set up appropriately and technology is working, and greet people when they arrive (to set a cordial tone).  She also recommends using a Parking Lot to “park” items that are off-topic but that you don’t want to forget.  And use other tools to facilitate the discussion and decision making, such as brainstorming, Fishbone diagrams, process mapping, various voting methods (like paired weighting, multi-voting, etc.).

There you have it: 10.5 (ok, 11) good practices that will help make meetings more efficient, more productive, and more successful.  The key is to do these 11 things consistently.  It takes some preparation and planning, and it takes some practice.  But think of the impact you’ll have, reducing wasted time and money, increasing engagement and energy, improving decision-making, and creating a focus on action in your organization.  Try these tips in the next meeting you lead!


What other insights do you have regarding effective meetings?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And PEN is considering offering a workshop in 2018 on meeting effectiveness and personal productivity.  If you or your team/organization would be interested in such an offering, let me know about it!


Never stop improving!


Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


Catalyst for Success Since 1987!


Photo credit listeningtoleaders.com, organize4results.com, presnb.com