I have been in some awfully boring and unproductive meetings. I think some of the worse reasons are:
- People like to blow their own trumpet - there are always people who enjoy the sound of their own voice more than actually getting things done.
- Implied responsibility transfer - I worked on a project a few years ago where the customer's project manager would get all the subcontractors together once a week and for hours (really - often four hours or more!) every trade had to explain what they'd done that week and how it impact the project. I think he hoped that any conflicts would magically be resolved because everyone would in part be responsible. The only outcome was that the only people who attended were those who weren't working hard on the site!
- If, like me, you're not very vocal with people who's discipline isn't yours (broadcast electronics in my case) then meetings are a terrible way to transfer knowledge. I end up not saying much (when perhaps I should) and the manager/bean-counter/sales-person talks a lot more and nobody gets the info they need.
Anyway - some of this is covered superbly in Oliver Burkeman's column from today's Guardian.
Almost everyone hates meetings, and yet the idea of doing away with them is seen as revolutionary, or ridiculous. Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of the hugely successful website Craigslist, has a simple policy - "No meetings, ever" - but if you're a manager, you're probably already thinking of reasons why you couldn't do the same. An important new book, Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It, proposes a total shift in how we think about office life, but one part is considered so startling, it's singled out on the cover: "No meetings." Senior executives find at least half of all meetings unproductive, studies show. Yet still they happen. "Meetings," writes the humorist Dave Barry, "are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organisations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate."
Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It reports on an experiment I mentioned here during its earlier stages, at the US electronics chain BestBuy: a "results-only work environment", in which staff could work where and when they liked, so long as their jobs got done. The first casualty was meetings. "Why do we spend so much of our business life talking about the business we need to take care of?" the authors write.
There are several reasons why meetings don't work. They move, in the words of the career coach Dale Dauten, "at the pace of the slowest mind in the room", so that "all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind underused". A key purpose of meetings is information transfer, but they're based on the assumption that people absorb information best by hearing it, rather than reading it or discussing it over email, whereas in fact, only a minority of us are "auditory learners". PowerPoint presentations may be worse. The investigation into the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster, caused by a fuel tank problem, suggested that Nasa engineers might have been hampered in addressing it sooner because it was presented on PowerPoint slides, forcing the information into hierarchical lists of bullet points, ill-suited to how most brains work.
The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one seems to be this: is it a "status-report" meeting, designed for employees to tell each other things? If so, it's probably better handled on email or paper. That leaves a minority of "good" meetings, whose value lies in the meeting of minds itself, for example, a well-run brainstorming session.
Countless books advise managers on how to motivate staff. But motivation isn't the problem. Generally, people want to work; they gripe when things like meetings stop them doing so. Indeed, a 2006 study showed there's only one group of people who say meetings enhance their wellbeing - those who also score low on "accomplishment striving". In other words: people who enjoy meetings are those who don't like getting things done.