Dec 012016

We all work with somebody who’s day job appears to be best described with phrase “has and attends meetings.” Think of any product or project managers (there’s a difference between the 2 I’m told, but I couldn’t tell you what that was) at your office. They’re always in meetings, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to insist that you join them. In fact, it seems like the more you work directly with these managers, the more time you spend in meetings. The thing I have a hard time understanding is, if all you’re doing is sitting around in meetings, then at what point are you doing anything valuable for your employer or their software?

Here’s the thing that you need to remember, businesses make money by either making stuff other people want, or by doing something useful for other people. None of that happens in a meeting. Meetings are purely a cost to companies. That begs the question of what good people are if they’re job description basically boils down to “meetings?” They’re not building the things you sell or doing the things you do. In fact, they’re taking the people who do build or do things that make you money away from said building and doing.

Surely these people were hired to do something useful, but it’s hard to figure out just what that something useful is. Part of the issue is that meetings look like work. You have a bunch of people in a room. You’re talking about Very Important Things (TM), and you may even be making decisions about what to build or do, or how to do it better. But at the end of the day, all you’re really doing is talking about stuff you want to do in the future, not actually doing any of it.

The biggest issue with meetings is that they so rarely add any value to what’s going on. More often than not, they’re being used for information transfer, and it’s largely ineffective at that. So not only do we have a situation that’s not designed to get anything done, but it’s the primary job description for some people. And since you can’t have meetings without other people, people who are trying to get other things done with their day end up getting dragged into these time sucks.

Sure, each individual meeting may not seem like they take a lot of time, but in aggregate the add up pretty quickly. All it takes is a few 1-hour meetings and all of a sudden half your day is gone.  As far as productivity goes, you may as well have slept in all morning and come strolling in after lunch. I’m pretty sure that’s not what anybody wants any of their employees doing with any sort of regularity, regardless of their job title, yet there are people who spend most of their days like this. It’s like being on vacation, except you never leave the office.

It’s not just the meetings themselves that waste time and kill work, if you don’t leave a significant enough time period between meetings, then that time is just as useless to people as the time spent in meetings. If there’s only a few minutes between meetings, it’s not worth the effort to try to do anything beyond checking emails and maybe running to the kitchen and get a snack (full disclosure, I work for Bronto, but don’t speak for them, they have PR people for that). In other words, multiple meetings have created an extra penalty on productivity.

Given that meetings result in very little, if any, value to a company coming out of them, why do some jobs seem to revolve around them? I’m guessing it’s because meetings create the illusion of “making important decisions” and “getting things done”.  At least, I’m guessing that’s the reason given the direct proportion of people with some type of managerial job title and the amount of time they end up spending in meetings. Given that for most companies, the type of “getting things done” that makes them money happens outside of meetings, and “making important decisions” is faster and probably better the fewer people you have in the room, these meetings basically a waste of everybody’s time.

Really the only productive things that tend to come out of meetings are information dumps and opinion solicitation. The problem with this is there are often better ways to transfer information, and we generally ask for too many opinions. If you want a quick rule-of-thumb test for whether or not a meeting is the best way to get information is to look at the flow of information. If the number of people giving information is greater than or equal to the number of people receiving it, you probably need a better means of keeping tabs. Meetings as information dumps work best when you have a small number of people communicating information to a much larger audience.

Everyone in an organization should have a clear job to do that furthers the business’s mission. Having a group of people whose job is to have meetings means that at some point in the process, you’ve over-hired and there’s now a group of employees who are out trying to make work for themselves.

Meetings are a tool to solve a couple of specific types of problem, but they seem to be the go-to thing to do for a lot of people. While it certainly looks like being in lots of meetings makes one productive and indispensable, the reality is they’re just creating a justification for their job and adding overhead to everyone else’s day. As a result, rather than being used sparingly and with a clear focus, they become a black hole into which your ability to be productive is drained. It’s a sad state of affairs, and begs the question of whether or not the people in the position of constantly having to sit through meetings are capable of contributing to your company anymore. Forget taking Shakespeare’s advice and killing all the lawyers – let’s start with the frequent meeting organizers instead.

 Posted by at 2:43 AM