Tuesday 2 September 2014 8:40 pm

How to end the tyranny of futile work meetings

Cut down on numbers and be sure to avoid red wine discussions.
It's not exactly novel to argue that meetings can be a waste of time. That was persuasively done by Jason Fried, a tech entrepreneur (predictably), in his 2010 Ted talk titled Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work. Meetings can be the place where productivity goes to die, he argued, reminding us that there’s no such thing as a “one-hour meeting”: if it involves seven people, that’s seven hours of lost productivity.
How can businesses be sure they’re getting seven hours of value, especially when attendees’ eyelids start drooping midway through? It turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. 
Yet as Bain partner Michael Mankins argues in a Harvard Business Review blog, it’s often poor planning and execution that does for productivity, rather than anything inherent to the idea of a meeting. Here are the questions to ask to make sure you’re not wasting your time. 


Mankins re-tells an anecodote from a former US undersecretary of defence responsible for procurement, who walked into a meeting with contractors and was faced by around 60 people. Dismayed, she asked everyone to stand up and individually explain why they were there; by the end of the process, there were just 12 of them left.
The core concept organisations need to bear in mind, Mankins thinks, is “human capital productivity (HCP)” – how effectively employees’ time is being used. Holding a meeting with large numbers of people is a quick way to reduce HCP, since it’s likely that many of the attendees could just have been briefed in an email afterwards. Further, a crowded meeting can easily lose focus, with everybody feeling they need to chip in at some point. 


According to Next Jump founder Charlie Kim (another US tech entrepreneur), bad meetings come in two kinds: “red wine discussions” and “lectures”. The former are characterised by lengthy, aimless discussions culminating in no “actionable outcomes”, while the latter are one-way, autocratic affairs, in which a senior person fires off a list of instructions to others – a group email would have sufficed.
How to strike a balance between these two poles, making sure people leave with clear goals, while maintaining reciprocity? A strategy used by Apple, according to Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, is to assign a directly responsible individual for each item on the agenda. Discussion can flow freely, incorporating a broad sweep of perspectives, but no one is left in any doubt over who is responsible for coming up with actions off the back of the meeting. 


It’s often said that we struggle to maintain concentration for longer than 45 minutes, yet meetings can run close to the two-hour mark. Mankins thinks a radical solution may be needed. One company he looked at introduced mandatory authorisation for any meeting lasting more than 90 minutes, requiring the signature of an executive two layers above the convenor. Needless to say, average meeting time quickly began to fall.

Run better meetings

Clunky Word documents aren’t the only way to format your meeting notes any more. Less Meeting allows you to turn them into an elegant, shareable set of minutes, ready almost immediately after the meeting’s end. It has an automated feature that means you don’t have to manually create a to-do list, and it can easily sync with your calendar and reminder apps. It’s free to use on an individual basis, but your company will need to stump up for a subscription to get it to integrate across the team.