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Sometimes we voice strong opinions on topics touching the design and visual communication industries, sometimes we dispense advice to students, professionals and clients. If you’re into that sort of thing, this blog’s for you.

Meetings: Weapons of Mass Interruption

Art by CSA Images

Art by CSA Images

There are many rituals in the realm of business. By far the worst of those rituals is the dreaded meeting.  Of course, that's not to say a good meeting doesn’t happen every once in a while. It’s hard to say with a straight face that every meeting held since the dawn of time was a waste of time. I think we can all rattle our brains and come up with at least one that impacted our jobs and the projects we were working on in a positive way, but that’s what we call an anomaly.

Some facts from Entrepreneur Magazine:

Meetings Are Distractions
Let’s say you’ve scheduled a meeting for 10 a.m., and one of your workers is tackling a complex problem around 9:45. Rather than keeping that train of thought going and working through the problem bit by bit, that worker is forced to break their line of thinking to attend an unrelated meeting.

Some workers might anticipate this and simply refuse to work on anything at all before the meeting, knowing their work will only be interrupted. This causes a severe hemorrhage of potential productivity.

Meetings Wander Off Topic
No matter how large or how small the group size or how carefully you’ve planned the agenda, your meeting is more than likely to eventually wander off topic. And when it does, the entire function’s been lost. The ideal meeting is one that stays on topic completely during the entire course of the session. Unfortunately, the ideal meeting doesn’t exist.

Meetings Have Unnecessary People
This is one of the worst qualities of meetings, and it’s nearly unpreventable. They’re generally scheduled with little regard for the time of people attending them. The scheduler – usually the boss – will often throw people onto the roster even if there’s only a small chance that the topic is relevant to them or that they’ll have something meaningful to contribute.

This inflates the number of people attending, which is sometimes seen as a good thing — more minds means more opportunities to solve the problem at hand — but it’s actually quite damaging. Not only does it draw more employees away from work, it also muddles the focus and presents more opportunities for distraction.

Meetings Multiply Time Spent
When you schedule a one-hour conference, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s only an hour, so even if it isn’t completely productive, you’ve only lost one hour of time.

Unfortunately, this mentality doesn’t illustrate the whole picture. Meetings take time from everybody attending. Say you have seven participants in an hour-long meeting. By the confab’s conclusion, the company has lost seven hours of time. Assuming it’s a weekly meeting, you can multiply that by 52.

You’re wasting more than 360 hours of company time every year simply by calling that meeting.

Meetings Aren’t Work
This negative characteristic of meetings amplifies all the others, and it’s the most important one to understand when considering the actual importance of meetings to your company’s productivity. 

While many people consider meetings to be “work,” they aren’t. Just because they take place in an office with people doesn’t mean that anything actually gets done. Most meetings are spent talking about work, and if you’re talking about work, you aren’t actually working on anything. Talking about solving a problem doesn’t solve the problem. In some cases it might clarify the problem, but in many cases, it will only complicate it or do nothing at all, putting everyone back at square one when the meeting is over.

The Time Cost of Meetings
According to a recent talk by TED speakers David Grady and Jason Fried, there are more than 3 billion meetings every year, with executives spending 40 to 50 percent of their total working hours in meetings. With almost 34 percent of all meetings ending up as wasted time, that means executives who spend 23 hours of work per week in meetings are flat-out wasting almost eight of those hours — nearly a full day of work every week. That loss in productivity is estimated to waste nearly $37 billion every year in the U.S. alone.

Now if the above wasn’t enough to get you to at least rethink your approach to the number of meetings you have, I think there is a more sinister and pressing reason to look at the number of meetings your company is having.

Here’s an excerpt from an article on NPR.org in which they talked to Al Pittampalli, an author and an expert on “meeting culture”:

“One of the biggest problems in organizations is that the meeting is a tool that is used to diffuse responsibility,” Pittampalli says.

He says meetings alleviate the anxiety of making tough calls by delaying decisions, instead of making them.

Bad meetings also recur because, in many cases, the people leading them don’t know how to run a good one.

There’s a lack of self-awareness among meeting leaders. The vast majority self-report that they believe they’re conducting meetings well, while the vast majority of participants disagree. Yet Pittampalli says no one speaks up.

“Nobody is willing to give feedback to their boss,” he says.

And so the endless meetings go on, and on, and on.

In conclusion, it’s my strong belief that there is a direct connection between the number of meetings an organization has and the strength of its leadership. In a world dominated by committee systems and flat organization charts, we seem to have forgotten the value of education, experience, and hierarchy. We no longer foster talent and train it – instead we place everyone on the same playing field and then reward ourselves for taking opinions seriously that are often given by people out their league. It may sound sacrilegious, old-fashioned and perhaps even dictatorial to those born into the millennial generation – but, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus."