A Terrible Idea that is Great: Kill All Meetings

A few years ago, I was called into a meeting with my supervisor and two of my management colleagues to discuss a lack of productivity on our teams; deadlines were being missed, work was not being checked and was shoddy, and projects were off track and disorganized.

She suggested that everybody come prepared with a few items that we could implement to help get this production issue under control.  My first colleague came up with the idea of a “committee” that would hold weekly reviews of all the work going on, to ensure that work was up to standard.  Excellent!

My other colleague came up with a series of forms that would have to “signed off” by both the person doing the work, the supervisor and the client, to ensure that the work was being done and on time, and that it was up to our standards.  A paper trail! Greatness!

I came with one suggestion: Stop having meetings.

Gasp.  They looked at me as if I had lost my mind.  Stop having meetings?  How will we ever know what is going on?  How will we ever communicate to our teams what we want!  Terrible idea!

When the collective panic subsided, I stated my case:

The reason that work was being done late, missed or turned in under-standard wasn’t because our employees were incompetent or did not understand their jobs, it was because they weren’t spending enough time at their desks doing actual work.  I laid out some of the calendars of some of the members on my team and showed them that on the average, each member was spending at the minimum, two hours a day in meetings; 10 hours of prime productivity every week.  I was spending 4-6 hours a day in meetings; even though myself and my team members came in early, stayed late and spent time in the office on weekends, there still wasn’t enough time in the day to concentrate on the work at hand with all the meetings on our calendar (the meetings were often scattered throughout the day). Any communication could be handled by email, or if urgent, a phone call. I concluded: If you want production, timeliness and quality to go up, cancel these meetings unless it is an emergency; a very last resort.

We went with the committee option. Things didn’t get much better.

When I began with my current employer, they were faced with many of the same problems: shoddy work, missed deadlines, etc.  I suggested cancelling meetings and to my delight and surprise, they agreed to try it out for a month. Also to my delight, something started to happen with the members of my team:

They stopped missing deadlines and started getting shit done.

As a result of this, we have perhaps 1-2 meetings a month, and the results continue to speak for themselves.

Meetings, in a word, suck. They are like the office dress code: a business dinosaur of another era. They are the killers of innovation and creativity.   In this day of enhanced communication, there is really no reason to have a meeting unless you absolutely must.  Meetings should be the absolute last resort.

As Peter Drucker points out in his book The Effective Executive, “one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”

Nobody wants to go to them anyway

Cancelling meetings, while seemingly a radical idea, is in reality what all workers secretly hope for; everybody hates going to meetings.  A recent survey by Microsoft of roughly 38,000 people worldwide found that U.S. workers spent 5.5 hours in meetings each week—and 71 percent said those meetings weren’t productive.  This non-productive time ain’t cheap either: some estimates put the national cost in lost time and wasted talent as high as $200 billion every year.

For management it is even worse; according to the same Microsoft study, some CEO’s and upper-management spend about 60% of their time in meetings. Because of this, they are unavailable most of the time during business hours to make key decisions, or monitor the work their employees are producing.

So, we have established that meetings are a waste of time, nobody wants to have them and nobody is getting any work done, yet it begs the question:  Why are we still having so many meetings?

The answer seems to be for the same reason your company has a pointless holiday party every year: Because that’s the way it’s always been done.

Culture changes, especially with an old rock like meetings, are hard to change. Some methodologies, like the darling of development Agile, are based upon having (gawd) daily meetings (even if they disguise it with terms like “Standup”, it’s still a meeting). People will resist this approach, but in order to show that killing meetings is a good idea you will have to produce:

– Hand in that report early

– Be on time with every assignment

– Have your work be flawless and beyond expectations

– Add some extra items to your task list

-Get your emails to inbox zero.

An increase in productivity at your job and not on Facebook is the goal here: the chance for showing that your time is being better spent at your desk instead of in a conference room is in your hands.  Change is hard for people to accept,  but you can’t argue with results.

Oh sure, you’re thinking: “This sounds great, but how do I keep from being dragged into the countless meetings that bombard my inbox on a daily basis?”

For starters, you could use this powerful word: No.

“No” is tough for most people to swallow, but it goes down a lot easier if you follow it up with options: Let everybody know you are not having meetings, even project status meetings,  but let everybody know that you are available for them to come see you, call or email.  Communication through email means you are going to get tons more and you might actually have to answer it in a timely manner,  but it is still a more efficient option.  For your projects, send out a status report with action items to get done.  If anybody has questions, they can reply back.  For your direct reports, have them make a brief status report or fill out a status on the items they are working on in some online tool like Asana (free), Basecamp or AtTask.

Or you could negotiate, as Leo Babauta demonstrates in his great book The Power of Less: always ask people if they really need you for a meeting. If they say yes, ask if you couldn’t give your input via email, via telephone, or in a 1:1 talk. Or maybe they only need you for 10 minutes during that 4-hour meeting, so how about you only show up to give input during that slot?

Whatever works for you, make sure it ends with the same goal: no meetings unless it is an absolute, unavoidable crisis.  And even then, keep it short (I’m not going to waste bandwidth on tips for holding meetings; Google is saturated with suggestions).

So there you have it: hold less meetings and get shit done.  Seems simple right; well, it is.  After all, I was able to find time to write this article because…I have no meetings.