Stop the Meeting Madness

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Research shows that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past fifty years.  Today, executives spend an average of nearly twenty-three hours a week in meetings, up from less than ten hours a week in the 1960s.  And that doesn’t even include all the impromptu gatherings that don’t make it onto the schedule.

Much has been written about this problem, but the solutions offered are usually discrete ones, like:

  • Establish a clear agenda.
  • Hold your meeting standing up.
  • Delegate someone to attend in your place.

As the authors explain, real improvement requires systemic change, because meetings affect how people collaborate and how they get their own work done.

Yet change of such scope is rarely considered.  When Perlow and her associates probed into why people put up with the strain that meetings place on their time and sanity, they found something surprising:  Those who resent and dread meetings the most also defend them as a “necessary evil.”

To be sure, meetings are essential for enabling collaboration, creativity, and innovation.  They often foster relationships and ensure proper information exchange.  They provide real benefits.  But why would anyone argue in defense of excessive meetings, especially when no one likes them much?

The answer is that executives want to be “good soldiers.”  When they sacrifice their own time and well-being for meetings, they assume they’re doing what’s best for the business — and they don’t usually see the costs to the organization.  They overlook the collective toll on productivity, focus, and engagement.

For one thing, time is zero-sum.  Every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into time for solo work that’s equally essential for creativity and efficiency.  For another, schedules riddled with meetings interrupt “deep work” — a term that the Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport uses to describe the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.  As a consequence, people tend to come to work early, stay late, or use weekends for quiet time to concentrate.

Another issue is the stiff price companies pay for badly run meetings.  For example, Simone Kauffeld, and Nale...

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