Meetings! Meetings! — How to escape the tyranny of useless meetings.

September 29, 2022
6 min read
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”
— Thomas Sowell

We all share and use the same finite resource—time.

❤️meetings, 😡meetings.

Here’s a shocking statistic: the intangible value of a company—brand, patents, processes, goodwill, and relationships—makes up 84% of the value of the S&P500. 

That’s a staggering number. It means that for every dollar those companies have in tangible assets like cash, equipment, and products, they have three and one-third dollars in intangible assets. 

All those assets are the product of decisions made by people in each company. 

People who meet each other; work, collaborate, and communicate.

It’s no wonder ‘meeting’ is a lazy synonym for ‘work.’

Can we escape the tyranny of useless meetings?

We are caught in a paradox. To advance our work and to make decisions, we have to involve other people, both in our teams and across the organization. So: more meetings.

But there’s a nagging itch: some of those meetings don’t add value.

According to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index, we spend more than half our time (58%) in meetings about work—chasing status, monitoring progress, and shifting priorities—instead of doing work. You know the meetings, the ones that could have been an email, or the ones where you would rather be doing something else.

The meeting—as we know it—is not terribly efficient.

Not all meetings are useless.

What is useful is in the eye of the beholder. 

My list— brainstorming meetings to come out with an idea, one-on-ones to catch up or develop relationships, short, well-run project tracking meetings—is not your list.

Whatever your list is, we can agree:

But there are too many meetings.

Our knee-jerk reaction to anything, especially in an era of Zoom calls and hybrid work, is to click the schedule button. 

Another meeting goes on the calendar. Grrrr.

Nicole Kidd, Head of Private Debt APAC, Schroders Capital, puts this phenomenon in typically Australian fashion, “it grinds my gears when people put meetings in when I am clearly busy.”

What do you do?

Declare meeting bankruptcy.

Actively manage your calendar. Don’t let your calendar control you; instead, you control your calendar. Put in a hard reset.

This is the advice of Brian Elliott, author of How the Future Works and an executive leader at the Future Forum and Slack; he advocates “calendar bankruptcy.” Where you “remove all recurring meetings and one-on-ones from your calendar...it’s a way to determine what’s really important.”

Once you have declared bankruptcy, it’s time to carefully put meetings back on the calendar. 

Here are a collection of simple rules which help guard your time, and guide your calendar.

Does it line up with the bigger picture?

Jim O’Brey is a sales veteran. 

As a leader of a team charged with building revenue at Viavi Solutions, he knows time is a precious resource. “I guard my time like a hawk and stop giving it away to things that don’t matter.” His simple rule is to “only engage in activities that support both my short and long-term goals.”

Do your meetings drive the work to an outcome?

No purpose, no presence.

“No purpose, no presence” is the rule for Stephanie Dismore, a senior vice president at HP. 

If there is no clear goal, she says, “I decline the meeting. If it’s important, it’ll come back on my calendar at some point with a purpose.”

Do your meetings have a stated purpose?

Keep the numbers down.

How many people in your meeting matters.

Booking focused—solo—time on your calendar helps you get stuff done. A 1-on-1 works to develop relationships or quickly coordinate with a colleague. A meeting with a clear purpose and 2 to 4 people, you can get productive work done.

5 to 8 people is a sweet spot for a productive meeting, if it’s well managed, to coordinate work. Beyond eight people, the productivity curve goes downhill quickly.

“Keep the numbers down.” This is the rule for  Nicolai Grebencio, a technical leader at Oracle. He advocates, “only invite people who absolutely need to be there.”

Are you keeping the numbers down?

No agenda, no meeting.

Not every meeting has an agenda, but they’re helpful tools.

The agenda can be simple, even if it’s only two parts: get on the same page, and make a decision. It orients everyone to what you will do in a meeting.

This is a rule for Daniel Portillo, Co-Founder at The General Partnership, a venture capitalist in the fast-paced startup world.. Portillo’s rule is clear. “No agenda, no meeting. No exceptions.” For Portillo, “planning an agenda is an extremely useful barrier [to scheduling a meeting]. It forces people to think about how the time is going to be used, and if there is another way of completing the objective without having to meet.”

Do your meetings have an agenda?

No agenda meetings.

What if a meeting has no agenda at all?

Reserve that for a very particular type of meeting. This is what David Frost, head of executive coaching at fassforward calls a “no-agenda check-in.” It’s a short call with a team member or colleague, which actually does have an unstated agenda—to deepen relationships. 

“Think about the casual conversations in the coffee room or while  walking to a meeting with a colleague. We miss those.”

“That’s what the ‘no-agenda’ check-in is. It’s intentionally replacing those moments. It only needs to be fifteen minutes. And rather than a Zoom meeting (we have enough of those), consider a phone call.  This way you can walk and talk. So it has the benefit of deepening an existing relationship, with the healthy side benefit of getting your body moving.”

Are you walking and talking?

Are you required or optional?

When you have a meeting, not everyone needs to be there.

Be kind. Some people are required; you want them to participate actively.  Some people are optional—it’s more of an FYI for them. As a way of keeping the numbers down, mark who is required and who is optional.

Patrick Reynolds, Chief Marketing Officer for Customer Data Platform Blueconic, thinks carefully about how he divides and manages his attention. 

“I want to know, am I a participant or an attendee? If I am marked as optional in the meeting, I will attend but multitask.”  As a participant, Reynolds will give the meeting his full attention.

Are you marking people as required or optional?

Work as a team

In large corporations, there’s a tendency for the group size in meetings to be larger. This can be an advantage if you let it.

Justin Stiehr, Head of Marketing Strategy and Operations at Verizon Business, takes advantage of large meetings. 

“I often look to see if multiple members of my team or if peers of mine are included. If they are, we probably have it covered—I don’t need to go.”

Are you working as a team?

Take advantage of technology.

With all the talk of calendar overload and Zoom fatigue, we blame technology. Productive people are taking advantage of technology.

Nancy Yaklich, a global digital innovation and transformation lead at Cargill, has changed the meeting defaults in her calendar. This has “slashed the 30-minute meeting to 20 minutes; the 60-minute meeting to 45.”

Others are experimenting with the meeting notes and recording facilities that come with most video conferencing software. “I can take time back and give time back to others, by recording me speaking over a PowerPoint deck and then sending it to others, using Loom or Berrycast,” says Luddy Liggon, a strategic HR partner at Allstate.

Are you using technology to let you smartly manage your time?

End the meeting early.

This is my favorite rule, which has in a meme dating back to 2015.

“In a world where you can be anything, be the person who ends the meeting early.”

Done. Here’s your time back.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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