An open letter to the meeting haters

An open letter to the meeting haters

“When’s the last time you had a useful meeting?” That’s the question I seem to be seeing a lot at the moment, the implicit criticism being that meetings are, on the whole, a waste of time.

I wanted to take the opportunity to say a word or two in defence of meetings as a counterpoint to this popular backlash.

There are plenty of crummy meetings out there

Don’t get me wrong; I attend my fair share of crummy meetings, and I’m all for improving the quality of them and eliminating ones that aren’t necessary (see my previous rant on this topic ).

What I object to is the blanket dismissal of meetings and the suggestion that they can never be useful. I find this counterproductive and it feels to me like a bit of a trendy bandwagon to jump on.

It’s about tool selection

You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to open a tin of beans, right? Or if you did, you’d have low expectations about how well it was going to go (and you might want to have a medic on standby).

The same is true of meetings: they are a tool, just the same as anything else. They work amazingly well for some things, and are terrible solutions for others. For example, meetings are good for:

  • Delivering a message that needs to land consistently across a group of people
  • Gathering ideas from a small group for an idea that’s not well formed
  • Sharing information about progress, highlighting issues and asking for help

They are not good for:

  • Coming up with detailed solutions
  • Making updates to documentation
  • Gathering feedback (from a large audience)
  • Resolving individual concerns
  • Getting decisions made

I’m going to qualify that last one – meetings can occasionally be excellent tools for getting a key decision ratified (and documented), but in reality most of the real decision-making needs to take place outside of the meeting in smaller discussions or 1:1s. Equally a problem with 2 or 3 sensible solutions can sometimes be resolved in a meeting, but these scenarios require the meeting to be really well run.

Any meeting can be a bad meeting

Knowing when a meeting is the right answer is half the battle; having the skills to run it well is the next key requirement. Contrary to popular belief this does not require advanced management or facilitation skills; it’s about getting the basics right.

Mike St. Pierre recently wrote an article that outlines these basics very well, so rather than repeat it I suggest you take a look: Why your next meeting doesn’t have to suck

We are all different

I see a lot of advice out there on how to have better meetings. Some of it like Mike’s, are sensible approaches to try and focus on what you can do differently. All too often though I see articles like “Keep all your meetings to 30 minutes” or “have stand-up meetings to improve productivity”

Meetings are complex beasts . It’s very difficult to generalise in a meaningful way. Sometimes a meeting needs to be 30 minutes; sometimes it needs to be 3 hours. The art lies not in the meeting duration, but in taking the time to plan the meeting, prepare the attendees in advance and run the meeting itself in a disciplined way.

The fact that you’re having a meeting at all indicates that the subject has more value to you than something you might put in, say, an email. So why not make an effort and do the preparation work up front to get the most out of it? Besides, generally you’ll find that the time spent up front will always give you a good return on investment in terms of meeting quality.

I would estimate that nearly 50% of my working day is spent in meetings. That’s a lot of time spent talking, rather than doing. But it’s the nature of knowledge work; a lot of the value I provide to my company is derived from how I think about things and direct. The same is true of many of my colleagues, so it should not be surprising that it’s necessary for us to meet regularly.

To dismiss that time as “wasted” because “meetings aren’t useful” is not helpful in my opinion. Where we should be focusing is ensuring that meetings are used appropriately, planned well and executed professionally.

As individuals, we have the capability to do this by holding ourselves to a higher benchmark, leading by example and encouraging others to do the same,

Do you find meetings useful? Are they always a waste of time? Join the conversation and add your thoughts in the comments below!