Are Meetings Broken, or are Other Problems Being Overlooked?

For many, it may be easy to point a finger at meetings in the workplace as being a waste of time. Are meetings really the problem, or are there other underlying issues that need to be fixed?

37 Signals recently launched a one-page website at boycottameetingday.com 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.

Boycott!

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?

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.

About the Author

Kevin Hoffman

Kevin M. Hoffman is the User Experience Director at Happy Cog, a boutique web design studio named Design Agency of the Year for 2010 by .net magazine. He is speaking and facilitating workshops on more effective meetings numerous times throughout 2011, including a UIE virtual seminar on February 3rd and appearances at SXSW, the IASummit, and the workshop “Selling Design” at UX London.

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9 Comments

  • Kyle Racki Reply

    “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.”

    – Not sure this is always possible. Let’s face it, there are people in some meetings that like to talk at length about irrelevant things, complain with no intent of coming up with a solution, and waste everyone’s time so they can feel heard.

    It’s idealistic to think that these people can be fixed by a conversation outside of the meeting. They should be ignored, and the best way to do this is to avoid meetings with them in the room, whenever possible.

  • Kevin M. Hoffman Reply

    Hi Kyle! I agree that people can have tough personalities, perhaps even ones that are toxic to productive discussions. But by categorizing them as such, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their expectations are never met, they continue to be ignored, and they keep on talking about the same tangential issues.

    As a facilitator of a meeting, you are within your rights to say that a particular topic is outside the scope of the agenda, and put them in a “parking lot” which you can revisit from time to time. If the problem persists, you are also within your rights to take someone aside and say something to the effect of “this is the process, this is the subject. You don’t seem interested in one, the other, or both. Do you think you should you be involved?”

    I’ve certainly been accused of being idealistic before, but given the choice, it’s always worth trying to solve the problem rather than live with the high expense of pointless meeting time.

  • Chauncy Reply

    In my experience, people who come to meetings unprepared or who are disruptive are not doing their job (because if they’re overworked, they’re not sharing that info with their manager and just contaminating everything they touch with divided attention). Unfortunately, it’s hard to correct this when these people are senior managers.

  • Rick Ross Reply

    Excellent points. I especially liked those under “Don’t blame meetings for other problems”.

    For managers, there are a few practices that can reduce the issues outlined here. Keeping in mind that meetings are expensive:

    1) require justification from anyone that requests a meeting. If the meeting is your idea, run the idea by a trusted colleague.

    2) Scrutinize the required agenda and remove items that aren’t absolutely necessary.

    3) Ask how much time is needed and set a mandatory cutoff before that time. Only approving 80% of the requested time seems to work well.

    4) You have to say “no” once in while when sufficient justification hasn’t been provided.

    With time limiting measures in place, people treat the time more seriously. Jerks will be marginalized as intolerable pariah and those with valuable contributions will come prepared to present them succinctly.

    Thanks for bringing up this important topic and so clearly outlining the issues.

  • Ryan Blakemore Reply

    A balanced view, as you have presented is the most productive approach.

    I think 37signals know this. But balanced approaches don’t create a movement. You just won’t be able to inspire many people with the balanced approach.

    “Have a more constructive meeting day”, just isn’t going to make people stop and think.

    37signals have specific rooms for meetings in the centre of their new office. So, I don’t think their views are as strong as the “Boycott a Meeting Day” site.

    I believe thinking similar to the thinking in this post was the desired effect. A balanced view, derived from questioning the current norm and considering the extremist view.

  • William Reply

    The core problem everyone overlooks is lack of conversation training.

    I work at a large private corporation and meetings are what drive progress.

    4 years back our company identified the cost of a room full of participants that would sit in silence while 1 or 2 conversation “bullies” would control, dominate or challenge any input.

    Now our company invests every two years for us to take a two day training course in crucial conversations:
    http://www.vitalsmarts.com/crucialconversationstraining.aspx

    http://www.google.com/products/catalog?hl=en&q=crucial+conversations&um=1&ie=UTF-8&cid=8808428455253376131&ei=vGVNTbDuLMH-8AaH3ZTsDg&sa=X&oi=product_catalog_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDYQ8wIwAg#

    Crucial conversations teach us how to make conversations safe for all (meeting) participants and develop a pool of shared meaning. Now Everyone has valued input and discussions have real meaning.

    Meetings move with tempo, People speak up when topics derail and are brought back on track.
    This makes a fast paced focused meeting. Off topics are identified, research assigned to best suited and then tabled for later meetings.

    Crucial Conversations also teach how to hold a difficult 1 on 1 conversation. The ones that can make you sick worrying that you need to face.

    The course has major impact as role play is involved – but at the minimum I recommend reading the book and keeping it closes for good reference.

    Regards,
    William

  • Wesley Reply

    To me it seems that the formal meeting is dead. It restricts the flow of ideas and thoughts and creates an environment of stress. I try to make meetings with clients something more of a hangout where we discuss their site, and crack open a few beers. Believe me more gets done this way.

  • Albany SEO Reply

    I hate to stick up for meetings, but if they’re done correctly there’s simply no substitute.

    At IntelliSites, we start every meeting with an “Upfront contract”. Whoever called the meeting states what he or she wants to get out of the meeting, and what they would like to cover. At the end we always ask “Did we get where we wanted to go?”

    This technique keeps our meetings to the essentials, and makes them helpful, not wasteful.

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