Are Meetings Broken, or are Other Problems Being Overlooked?

February 1st, 2011
Published on
February 1st, 2011

37 Signals recently launched a one-page website at encouraging you to join the anti-meeting movement by boycotting a single meeting on January 19, 2011. The current estimated size of the workforce in the United States, where 37 Signals operates, is roughly 154 million people. As of January 18th there were around 3,300 people who had agreed to join the movement and, I assume, didn’t show up for a meeting on January 19th. This number jumped to an impressive (if a little suspicious) 215,730 by the morning of the big day, January 20. But even that number indicates an adoption rate in the U.S. alone of less than 0.002%. In other words, this particular movement isn’t starting off with a bang.

I’m joking about that adoption rate being a measure of success, of course. The goal of the site and the book it promotes, Rework, is challenging and changing the underlying assumptions about successful process and culture in the workplace. Having read the book, I agree that there’s a lot that isn’t working (literally) and like some of the proposed ideas for solving those problems. But I find this mini-website and the content of Rework devoted to meetings to be heavy on rhetoric, light on data, and more importantly, lacking enough tactical value.


Boycotting is traditionally an act of last resort reserved for when a product poses an perceived health threat to consumers, or when the organizers of an event are considered so morally bankrupt their efforts should not be supported. Imagine if we boycotted everything that was simply broken. Alternator breaks on your car? Boycott! Leave it by the side of the road, never to be driven again. Guitar breaks a string? Boycott! Never play it again, and replace it with a brand new guitar. (Sweet, dude!) Having a troublesome phase with your significant other? Boycott! Either start dating again, switch teams, or go celibate.

Automobile engines, musical instruments, and human relationships are complex processes consisting of many moving parts and variables that are entirely out of our control. But the ways in which they improve our lives far outweigh the inconvenience of the routine maintenance, and the rare major overhauls, that they require. The same can be said of meetings as a mechanism for getting things done. 


Boycott a Meeting Day makes a number of statements supporting their case for meetings being a broken model for doing business. I would argue that this rhetoric doesn’t actually solve any problems. These statements do, however, illustrate two things: either someone isn’t taking responsibility for the meeting itself, or meetings are being blamed for other problems entirely.

You’re doing it wrong.

Meetings are usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or some interface design).

Sometimes agreement on abstract things is necessary before a group can move on to concrete things. Bummer, but this is how human beings work and it’s a indicative of a larger aspect of human relationships: trust. People in positions of responsibility need to trust that the concrete work being done by those reporting to them will service the abstract goals they’ve identified for the organization. A great meeting, consisting of ideas conveyed at the right conceptual level with passion, can build that trust, and possibly lead to even fewer meetings.

And who says you can’t have a meeting about a code or interface design challenge? Where I work, we do it all the time. 

Meetings frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what they are about.

Meetings usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.

Just because something “usually” or even “frequently” happens doesn’t make it acceptable. If people have gotten lazy about agendas, fix them. You should be able to articulate the purpose of the meeting in actionable terms that fit into a larger process.

And if you aren’t conveying information, then yes, you are wasting time, but that’s not the fault of the medium, that’s the fault of the organizer or presenter. Take a look at a conference like TED versus any number of death by PowerPoint conferences. Content is king, even in meetings.

Don’t blame meetings for other problems.

Meetings require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway.

It’s your own fault if you aren’t prepared for anything. The meeting can’t tie you to a chair say “don’t inform yourself about the purpose of this discussion!” If people aren’t coming to meetings prepared, that’s indicative of other problems. Maybe they’re overworked, or they aren’t the right people to be at that meeting. Or worst of all, maybe they aren’t doing their jobs.

Meetings break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow.

If your workday is broken, fix the workday. Propose isolating meetings to specific parts of the day, or eliminating meetings altogether on particular days. It’s called time management. Figure out the best structure for your day to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. Even isolate specific chunks of time for heads down work, if you have to. Wholesale elimination of activities we don’t enjoy just isn’t an option for many of us working in medium to larger organizations, unfortunately. 

Meetings often contain at least one moron that inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.

It’s always easier to be dismissive of problems, and sadly people, than it is to confront them. Everyone has reasons for feeling the way they do, and taking those feelings into account, possibly outside of the meeting itself, is a more respectful and effective way to handle a personality problem. 

Meetings can suck; but they don’t have to.

Meetings are the cornerstone to effective communication…right?

There’s a lot to be said about why meetings are inefficient, unsuccessful, and even irritating. There are also many situations where a meeting is not the best solution for a problem, but we tend to rely on them as an evolved an instinctual reaction to human tension. On the other hand, good meetings can also have tremendous value in the workplace. The camaraderie and trust they build between people and teams can sustain a complex project through differences of opinion, budget shortfalls, and catastrophic changes in leadership and organizational goals. 

The appeal of practicing self-design in a vacuum is obvious, and some of us are lucky enough to live that lifestyle successfully. Those of us working with clients or internal teams need to engage in group decision making, and facilitate agreement to sell great design ideas to the point of adoption and implementation. There’s a history of literature and proven methodology illustrating how and why human beings choose to use meetings in the workplace as a mechanism for getting things done. Ignoring the instinctual need and proven models for good group interaction puts great work at risk to fail as much as simply deciding not to show up for a single meeting, or for work at all.