Meetings Are Unproductive Elephant in the Room

Ann All
Slide Show

How to Conduct Better Meetings

Surveys have indicated that a typical meeting attendee views them as being 2.3 times as long as they should be. Since meetings are vital to a project?s success, the secret lies in simply making them more efficient.

I've written about lots of drains on productivity through the years, from overflowing e-mail inboxes to working long hauls without a break to streaming video of sports tournaments. Yet unproductive meetings are the biggest, baddest elephant in the room, likely wasting more hours than all of those things put together.


They affect almost every person in an organization. Those with cross-functional roles can find themselves attending an endless cycle of meetings.


There's a great illustration of the largely negative attitude most folks have toward meetings at the Socialcast site. It cites a Microsoft survey that found people spend an average of 5.6 hours a week in meetings As if that wasn't bad enough, a whopping 69 percent of respondents feel meetings aren't productive. (That figure is slightly higher, 71 percent, in the United States.) There are 11 million format meetings a day in the United States, which adds up to more than 3 billion meetings a year.


The illustration includes a list of five signs that a meeting is becoming a waste of time. They are:

  • Too much information is being covered and/or the meeting lacks focus.
  • The meeting runs longer than an hour.
  • There is a long list of attendees, which may mean the scope is too ambitious.
  • Three words: huge PowerPoint deck.
  • Meetings conducted out of routine, rather than for a specific purpose.


My snarky addition to the list: If you find yourself asking whether a meeting is a waste of time, then it probably is.


It also includes a list of the top 10 complaints about meetings. The No. 1 answer, cited by 27 percent of respondents, is disorganized, rambling meetings. An IT Business Edge slideshow, "How to Conduct Better Meetings" offers several suggestions that should help sharpen the focus of meetings, along with suggestions that may alleviate some of the other top complaints, such as people who interrupt their peers and try to dominate meetings.


Some of my favorite tips, which were provided by project management expert Michael D. Taylor from Systems Management Services:

  • Inform and remind the team of the purpose just before the meeting.
  • Use diagrams, pictures and graphics. (But for the love of God, no huge PowerPoint decks.)
  • Record action items, those assigned tasks and due dates.


I wonder, as does Mark Horton on Socialcast, whether collaboration software might help reduce the need for meetings. Tools like Salesforce.com's Chatter allow users to follow streams of activities that interest/involve them, which could mean folks won't need as many formal updates.


Still, sometimes there's just no substitute for face time, which is why some companies like software developer Atomic Object insist on frequent meetings. As described on the Atomic Object company blog, daily meetings spur further collaborative opportunities and keep folks better connected and aware of others' activities so coworkers know whom to turn to for help and advice.


While meetings are a great way of doing this at smaller companies, this approach obviously won't work for large companies with dispersed work forces. Booz Allen Hamilton derives many of the same social benefits from its Hello-bah.com, which I described as "an intranet on steroids" in a post from July.


Atomic Objects stays on point by posting meeting agendas, barring tables and chairs so meetings rarely run longer than five minutes, and scuttling small talk.

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