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Published: Monday May 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday May 12, 2014 MYT 6:52:02 PM

Sometimes, meetings are just a waste of time

Dilbert says it all...

Dilbert says it all...

Nobody needs telling that meetings are a catastrophic waste of work time. But even so, it’s a little alarming to learn just how much time they can waste.

In the Harvard Business Review, three consultants from global management consulting firm Bain report the results of an exercise in which they analysed the schedules of the employees of an unnamed “large company” and concluded that one weekly executive meeting ate up a dizzying 300,000 hours a year. Which is impressive, given that each of us only has about 8,700 hours a year to begin with. Including sleep.

The explanation is that a weekly meeting of a few hours doesn’t just use up those hours for each person present; it creates knock-on time demands throughout the organisation. In this case, the weekly meeting took up 7,000 person-hours for the executives involved. 

But they also had to meet with unit heads in order to prepare for it, generating another 20,000 hours of meetings; those unit heads had to prepare for those meetings with team meetings (63,000 hours); and those team meetings generated numerous preparatory meetings (210,000 hours). And that total, the authors write, “doesn’t include the work time spent preparing for meetings”.

To be sure, the figures would mean rather more if we knew the size of the workforce involved. Nor do I have any idea what line of business this company’s in. But it’s hard not to conclude that the purpose for which it really exists is ... having meetings. 

The Harvard Business Review doesn’t quote American humorist Dave Barry, but maybe should have: “Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organisations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate.”

It’s not my place to say that most or even many of those 300,000 hours were wasted ones. But there’s plenty of research to suggest they may well have been. It would be hard to invent a worse system for reaching decisions than the modern meeting. For a start, there’s evidence to suggest – as you expected – that it’s the overconfident loudmouths who get their way, not the most knowledgeable attendees. Moreover, items higher up the agenda get more attention regardless of their importance.

Oh, and meetings are ground zero for Parkinson’s Law of Trivilality, otherwise known as the Bike Shed Effect. People won’t speak up about the big, complex, important decisions, because they’re scared of embarrassing themselves. But they still want to feel (and appear) as if they’re making a contribution, so they’ll make sure to weigh in on the unimportant stuff instead. 

The result: triviality gradually comes to dominate. A decision about the construction of a new bike shed, as Parkinson put it, “will be debated for an hour and a quarter, then deferred for decision to the next meeting, pending the gathering of more information”.

There are other reasons for holding meetings besides decision making, it’s true. But there’s not much reason to think these purposes are best achieved that way either. If the goal is status reporting – catching everyone up on where things stand – there are numerous electronic tools for that. (These have the great advantage of being asynchronous: the boss can demand that everyone provide an update by a certain time, without requiring that everybody do it at a certain time.)

And if the goal is generating new ideas, quiet, focused solitude may be more effective as brainstorming. (Here’s an interesting technique, “brainswarming”, that seeks to combine the best of both.)

Or maybe you’re using meetings primarily to foster a sense of togetherness and team spirit? Don’t do that. If it’s not in your power to consign meetings to purgatory for evermore, you might at least suggest holding them standing up. That way you could reduce the time they take up by 34% without any reduction in the quality of decisions reached. (In any case, sitting is killing you.)

If at all possible, though, find an alternative. “A meeting,” the business writer Dale Dauten once wrote, “moves at the speed of the slowest mind in the room ... all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind under-used”. That’s no way to spend 300,000 hours a year. – Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Business, Opinion, Insight, business, corporations, companies, meetings, time management, wastage

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