How to Kill the Traditional Meeting and Get More Done

Oct 5, 2015
9 Min Read

It’s estimated the average American office worker spends 11 hours a week in meetings, but the sad truth is that most of that time isn’t productive. Why egos may be to blame. 

No matter how many cell phones you ban from meetings, or how many meetings you have while walking or standing or whatever you try to do to make them shorter, meetings just don’t seem to get better.

The reason, says Al Pittampalli, a meetings expert who advises organizations like NASA and IBM, is because meetings have become the “Kabuki dance of corporate politics,” as leaders and teams use them as a way to dodge work, decisions and personal accountability.

Meetings make workers busy, not productive, he says. They prevent those attending from getting real work done that can make a difference to customers and the bottom line. Meetings also prevent workers from doing meaningful work, such as mentoring or coming up with innovative ideas, he adds.

The bottom line: “Most meetings are a waste of time and people shouldn’t even be meeting in the first place,” he says.

A big part of the problem is that meetings are often about egos. They can be used to display power and status, which is why no one likes being left out of a meeting because they worry it’s a bad sign for their careers. At the same time, those attending a meeting often tell themselves they are being productive – or at least look productive to anyone passing by.

Further, departments like IT  – with the heavy reliance on gathering and disseminating information –  often are guilty of the most inefficient and unproductive meetings, says Pittampalli, author of “Read This Before Our Next Meeting: How We Can Get More Done.”

“Meetings in IT can often get bogged down in information and presenting that information. Those meetings are just dead while literally 75% of the time is spent presenting information to each other,” he says. “There are much better ways to share that information, such as project management software or even video.”

What IT must learn, along with everyone else, is that meetings should be used for collaboration and “talking about interesting and complex information,” he says.

That’s why he’s come up with the “Modern Meeting Standard” that establishes ground rules for where and when to call a meeting. The standard establishes that:

  1. Leaders make decisions, not meetings. “When an issue shows up on your desk, the first thing you must do is embrace this fact: You own it,” he says.  If a decision needs to be made and isn’t a big deal, then the leader needs to make the decision and move on.  If a decision is needed that will have some consequence, then the leader can seek input from others – but there is no reason to call a meeting. “A lot of people have anxiety when it comes to making a decision, and they use meetings as a hiding place. They think that if they call a meeting, then their problem now becomes the decision of everyone and they take comfort in mitigating the risk,” Pittampalli says. “They think that way they won’t get blamed if it goes wrong.”
  2. Meetings should be to resolve conflict or coordinate action. Before a meeting about a low consequence issue, leaders should let others know of their decision and the reasoning behind it. Then, a meeting can be called for participants to voice their concerns, ask questions or request modifications. Since the “train is about to leave the station,” leaders should only make changes if they agree with the input. On the other hand, when the stakes are high and the decision is of great consequence, then the meeting will be about resolving conflict. In this case, leaders shouldn’t reveal their decision beforehand in order to avoid groupthink. They should instead encourage debate and work toward getting a consensus. Remember to “let the best decision prevail, even if it’s not yours,” Pittampalli says.
  3. Meetings move fast and end on time. Meetings need to be as brief as possible to avoid arguments that go around in circles and add nothing to the decision. Remember that time is money, like the senior executives at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. They gather in the hallway outside the president’s office for a talk that lasts less than 10 minutes with zero chitchat. “The instigator gets buy-in, a decision is made and they move on,” Pittampalli says.
  4. The number of attendees is limited. “If you have no strong opinion, have no interest in the outcome, and are not instrumental for any coordination that needs to take place, we don’t need you,” he says. “From now on, if you’re invited to a meeting where you don’t belong, please don’t attend.”
  5. Anyone who is unprepared gets rejected. Any meeting must require attendees to prepare beforehand. For example, a leader creates an agenda that states the problem, the alternatives and the decision. It should outline the kind of feedback that is needed and a statement about what the meeting will deliver if successful. “If someone comes unprepared, cancel the meeting or hold it without him,” he suggests. “If someone comes and doesn’t participate, don’t invite her to the next meeting.”
  6. There are no minutes, just an action plan. Leaders will follow up with participants to ensure they are doing what they agreed to do in the meeting. “Hold them accountable. If you don’t, who will?” he asks.
  7. Memos will be read. The only way to do away with so many meetings is for everyone to commit to reading the memos they get. If not, it’s back to the information meetings, he warns.
  8. A brainstorming culture is necessary. Brainstorming sessions let the imagination of participants run free, and break away from the fear and anxiety that can stifle them. Companies like IDEO demonstrate that brainstorming “is a very different activity than what usually takes place inside conference rooms,” he says. “It’s an anti-meeting” where the regular rules don’t apply.

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