Are meetings really a waste of time?

Just saw a quote by John Kenneth Galbraith that “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Are they really that wasteful?

There is often a lot of humour thrown around the issue of meetings. Especially words such as ” It is unfair to compare a Business meeting with a funeral. Funerals have a definite purpose” or ” a meeting is a place where they take minutes and waste hours”.

Research shows that many staff meetings are nothing but boring report back sessions. For the other attendees the meeting is boring, because they are already familiar with the topic or it simply doesn’t involve their work.

The problem with most meetings is that they are seldom assessed in terms of accomplishments other than the money expended in terms of time consumed. Sometimes there may be a tendency to meet on a regular basis as opposed to “as needed” basis.

The question that needs to be asked is how much more effective meetings in the company can be if chairmen and attendees are trained in how to use the medium as it needs to be used. For instance how many Chairmen of meetings know what to do, know how to keep their meetings effective? How many secretaries can take appropriate minutes?

Who trains inexperienced managers to make the most of meetings? Who trains secretaries in minute taking? Given the experience of most people at meetings, these types of gatherings are ready for an overhaul.

Meetings that are effective and does not waste unnecessary time. In the Wall Street Journal a few years back, an article commented that US managers would save 80% of the time they invest in meetings if they would do two things right: have an agenda, and start on time/end on time.

Any training intervention dealing with meeting management training needs to emphasise the following:

  1. The purpose of holding a meeting. Questions such as the following should be asked:Do you need to hold the meeting? Is the meeting schedule appropriate? Every meeting must have a purpose. If the purpose is to share information as opposed to discuss, make a decision, ask questions, reach consensus, and so on, the meeting was unnecessary. The info could have been shared without taking attendees time.
  2. The need for having a desired outcome of the meeting before the meeting so that the meeting can be steered toward the outcome. Outcomes, as an example, are decisions; determine next steps in a project, the evaluation of a current work system and so on.
  3. When to hold a meeting. This includes meeting schedules and agenda preparation – and will include frequency and duration, sample meeting agenda and minute template forms.
  4. The purpose of minutes. Note taking should be brief and emphasize decisions reached, and actions committed to. Unless it is a legal or company requirement I prefer handwritten minutes that are photocopied and distributed on the spot. This reduces organizational resources invested in typing, rewriting, and polishing.
  5. The roles, responsibilities and authority of:· The Chairperson, Committee members, Managers and attendees
  6. Skills needed by the Chairperson – including how to discern between task and interpersonal issues.
  7. Specific tips on how to make meetings work including tips on how to plan and conduct meetings to maximise participation and achieve desired outcomes, organise, and conduct productive meetings.

Here are some tips to prevent meeting mismanagement in your sphere of influence:

For traditional meetings (which are usually discussions), ask the following:

1. What is the purpose of the meeting? If there is no purpose, then cancel the meeting.

2. Is there always an agenda? If not, then don’t attend the meeting.

3. If the meeting is only to disseminate information, then send a memo and cancel the meeting.

4. Eliminate general business from all meeting agendas – if it is not on the agenda then it is not discussed.

Another useful tool is to cost the meetings i.e. work out the cost of running each meeting, wages, on-costs, venue, catering, relief staff, etc. You’ll probably find that it is quite high. Then ask what return you could get on that money if you invested it. The point is that you would expect a return on your investment if it was cash, so expect a return on your investment from every meeting. In other words, there has to be a tangible output. That’s why facilitators are useful for some meetings – to keep everyone focused on producing an output.

For non-traditional meetings (which encourage dialogues):

1. Use the team briefing approach – this greatly facilitates the purpose of meetings.

2. Hold stand-up meetings on the shop-floor and even in administration areas – no chairs.

3. Hold meetings directly before lunch – the participants become very efficient then.

4. Daily/weekly review meetings should not last more than 15 minutes.

5. Make meeting sizes between 5 and 7 members – greatly enhances productivity.

6. Establish group “norms” for each meeting group, otherwise “groupthink” can occur.

Some other tips:

– Start on time

– Stay on track

– Make sure to accomplish something. There is nothing worse than attending a meeting where nothing was decided or accomplished.

– Don’t beat a dead horse. The worse thing to do is discuss the same topic for 15-20 minutes and not come up with a solution if a solution is needed.

– If certain topics go over then shorten the less important topics to help stay on track.

– Try to make sure everyone has a chance to speak if they want.

– Always finish on time or early. People love it if meetings end early.


What about the Web 2.0 and meetings? Perhaps you can use Windows Live Messenger (Instant Messenger) instead of calling an unnecessary meeting.

What technologies do you use to alleviate your meeting load? Please let me know!