We spoke with 75+ leaders in companies of all sizes and heard a common theme: meetings take up too much time and many of them are unproductive. Remote has only made the problem worse.
In 2019, the cost of poorly organized and run meetings was estimated at $399 billion in the United States. Meetings waste more time than any other business activity. Time that could be used creating value and achieving your company's mission.
It's a problem that needs more attention than it gets.
We are researching meeting waste and how to fix it for an upcoming playbook. We compiled notes from over 50 books, essays, stories, and research papers. Here is a summary of the common root causes we've found so far:
Scheduling a meeting is the path of least resistance. There is very little friction when scheduling a meeting at most companies. There is no feedback about the quality of the meetings you organize.
A meeting can feel like the easiest next step in the moment, but it's probably not the most efficient.
Being busy feels productive. Without a strong feedback loop about how valuable and productive your work is, people will do things that are visible. Meetings feel and look like productivity even when they don't move you closer to your goals.
Accepting an invite is the default behavior. The cultural norm is usually to accept a meeting invite. Attendees should think more deeply about the goal of a meeting and if they are really needed to achieve the outcome. It should be a cultural norm to RSVP 'No' if you shouldn't be there and 'Maybe' if you need more information to decide.
Meetings have ripple effects. Meetings usually need pre-work and follow up work. They often create more meetings because it's an easy next step. The 2nd and 3rd effects of a meeting should be considered when doing an ROI calculation. This is often tough to do.
Managers overuse meetings. Managers are incentivized to be visible and hands-on. They also need to build rapport and trust with the people they work with.
When you are not producing other measurable work, communication is often your output. Meetings are the path of least resistance to facilitate communication.
I can't count the number of times I've been guilty of this.
It takes discipline to deeply consider the ROI of a meeting before you have it.
Writing is an underdeveloped skill. Most people have an easier time communicating through speaking than other mediums. Writing your thoughts down is not only a good way to avoid meetings, it's also a great way to think more clearly. It's a skill that needs to be developed more deliberately at organizations.
Meetings are too big. The bigger a meeting gets the less effective it becomes. We often invite people to meetings because we want them to feel included. Rarely do we limit meetings to the smallest group of people that can accomplish the goal.
Meetings are too long. Parkinson's Law says that work expands to the time allotted to it. 30 and 60-minute meetings are scheduled because that's the norm. We rarely need all that time to accomplish the actual goal. 5, 10, or 15 minutes should be used far more often.
It's hard to run an efficient meeting. They go off on tangents, drag on, and don't stay focused on the objective. The follow-up is poor because next steps and decisions aren't properly recorded and communicated to the right people. Good facilitators keep a laser focus, bring people back to the goal and always try to end early.
No accountability for poorly run meetings. There is little incentive for employees to improve the quantity and quality of their meetings. Most organizations are not providing the feedback and guidance needed.
Managers schedule for their own calendar. When someone with a busy schedule sets up a meeting, they are likely going to pick a time that makes the most sense for them.
If your attendees rely on deep work to be productive, this can cause non-obvious damage. Breaking up a 2 or 3-hour block of focused time kills productivity. Managers should be thinking about crafting the most productive schedule for everyone on the team.
Paul Graham talks more about this in his essay Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule.
Leadership is not setting a good example. Leaders are in a lot of meetings. Every meeting is an opportunity to show how to properly approach them. A leader's actions signal to the rest of the team how they should act. Almost every leader could afford to be more deliberate about the example they set.
Every company will need a different mix of tactics and tools to address their meeting waste. We are working on a meeting playbook to compile and summarize every option worth considering. Sign-up for early access.
Laskie builds playbooks for common business challenges. We help leaders select the right mix of tactics, experts, and tools to address their biggest problems.