Why you should probably cancel all your meetings

Why are we here? If someone’s called a meeting, you may not really know
My meetings are…” What word would you use to complete that statement? If the first that comes to mind is “awesome”, “relevant”, “timely” or “value-generating”, I congratulate you. You’re in a tiny minority and you should probably be writing this article, not reading it.
It’s far more normal to hear words like “overlong”, “frequent”, “boring”, “political”, “time-wasting” or just plain “toxic”. In a post-industrial, knowledge-worker economy like ours, meetings aren’t getting in the way of work, they are the work. They should, therefore, be the place where value is generated, problems are solved and new ideas are born. Here are a few ways to do that.


The word meeting is so overused that it has ceased to mean anything. It’s a one-size-fits-all label that covers everything from a 15-person presentation to a one-to-one chat with the boss. No wonder people turn up not knowing what’s happening or why they are there. A simple antidote is to stop using the word. Replace it with something that advertises its intention in advance. A briefing, for example, tells you why people are gathering (to be briefed) and for how long (it’s going to be fast-paced and, well, brief). Huddle, scrum, brainstorm, forum, check in, time out, heads up: these are all descriptors which are gathering popularity in the business world – because they suggest what the meet is for and how it is going to be run.


Most bad meetings suffer from poor leadership, or what I call boss-at-the-wheel syndrome. This is based on the mistaken idea that the most senior person in the room should lead the meeting. Incorrect. They should host the meeting, and have someone else lead it. The host is the person who is responsible for the business outcome. The leader is the person responsible for “driving” the meeting. Trying to do both at the same time is having a party for a hundred where you decide to cook and, at the same time, greet all the guests. Distribute the leadership of larger meetings. Get different people to lead the agenda, take notes, keep time and so on, while the host keeps an overview and listens to what’s going on. Answers are often more candid when the boss isn’t asking the questions.


The way most meetings are designed reminds me of how the average British male puts together a summer BBQ. Take too many ingredients, jam into too small a space and add a fire-starter. The result is burnt on the outside, raw on the inside and indigestible. When I am asked to advise on meeting design, the first thing I do is look to see what we can take out. Do one thing well: if you have two things to achieve, see if you can design two short meetings around a break – rather than one long one.


A client recently confessed to me that she had fallen asleep in a meeting. I was telling her to lighten up but she stopped me. “You don’t understand. It was a one-to-one, and I was leading it!”. The lesson is to think of every meeting as an experience, and of everyone taking part as your audience. Make it an experience worth having, or cancel the meeting.
David Pearl is a consultant, author and founder of Street Wisdom.

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