Why Does Everyone Hate Meetings?


This is the 52nd in a collection of newspaper ads written by Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the text from that ad.

Three kinds of people attend meetings.
Those who want progress, those who don’t, and those who want to impress the chairman.
98% of the talk goes to 2% of the problem.
Remember the story of the board of trustees who agreed unanimously to spend millions for an atomic reactor, then fell in wild dissension over the request by the freshmen basketball coach over a new blackboard.
Maybe the air is too soporific.
Maybe the carafes of ice water tend to lubricate the long-winded.
Maybe the chairs are too comfortable.
(A fast food chain designed its chairs to be purposefully uncomfortable so people wouldn’t linger over their coffee.)
At your next meeting, remove the chairs, empty the carafes, turn the thermostat down to 55.
A stand-up meeting could be a stand-out.

Complaining about meetings is as American as baseball and American Pie. In the 30-plus years since the ad above was written, not much has changed. Nancy Koehn, who teaches at the Harvard Business School, estimates that 11 million meetings take place on a daily basis in the United States.

A 2013 study by officebroker.com found that the average office worker spends 16 hours in meetings every week; government workers spend 22 hours a week in meetings.

Here are some of the highlights from a 2014 WSJ article about meetings.

  • At Seagate Technology, some work groups discovered they were devoting more than 20 hours a week to meetings, according to an analysis of 7,600 Seagate employees’ interaction and activities in 2013.
  • When an executive at InterMetro Industries visited a weekly two-hour meeting that one manager held with 12 to 15 employees, he noticed 80% of attendees were multitasking on their phones.

Here are a couple of suggestions from the same article on how to improve meetings:

  • Follow the “rule of seven” people at a meeting: Every attendee added to that number reduces the likelihood of making sound decisions by 10%.
  • Don’t include people from more than two levels of management.

Here are a few additional suggestions from a 2015 WSJ article:

  • At Amazon, Jeff Bezos starts executive meetings with 30 minutes of silence and has everyone read a carefully crafted six-page report. That’s still a waste of 30 minutes.
  • Some executives at Twitter and Apple set aside Mondays for meetings; the rest of the week is for full days of actual work.
  • BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg is more lenient; he sets aside Tuesdays and Thursdays as “no meeting” days.
  • A music startup bans electronics, restricts meetings to a single topic—and limits them to 10 minutes.
  • Here’s a trick a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs employ at board meetings. When an investor or outside board member asks a stupid question, the CEO says “that’s a great question” and then gives the questioner an action item, something like: “OK, can you survey the competition and report back on their capital plans and hiring ratios? Great, let’s keep going.” Eventually the stupid questions dry up and people who ask them may stop coming to the meetings.
  • Craig Benson, a founder of the networking company Cabletron Systems in the 1980s (and governor of New Hampshire from 2003-05) ripped out conference-room tables and chairs and replaced them with bar-height tables and, get this, footrests. Meetings magically were on point and ended quickly.

And speaking of stand-up meetings, there was a 2012 Business Insider story that noted how popular such meetings were becoming. Also called the “morning roll-call”, these meetings take away all the chairs and are significantly shorter meetings aimed at updating everyone on the ins-and-outs of the company.

Here were some interesting highlights of the Business Insider story:

  • Rachel Emma Silverman at the WSJ reportsStand-up meetings are part of a fast-moving tech culture in which sitting has become synonymous with sloth. The object is to eliminate long-winded confabs where participants pontificate, play Angry Birds on their cellphones or tune out. The meeting typically lasts for five minutes and the “more uncomfortable, really, the better,” so feel free to remove the tables as well.
  • One company in Florida actually had the speaker hold a 10-pound medicine ball to refrain them from talking too long, writes Daniel Roth at the LinkedIn blog. In other words, “go on too long and your arms remind you to shut up.”
  • More than a decade ago, Allen Bluedorn, a professor at the University of Missouri, conducted a study on stand up meetings and concluded that they were about 34 percent shorter than sit-down meetings, yet produced the same solutions.

So my guess is that meetings are here to stay, but it seems like some of the suggestions noted above could be helpful.

My all-time favorite approach to meetings is the one used by Steve jobs. he would have walking meetings. And apparently he was not the ony tech titan who did so.

Jobs was famous for taking meetings on foot, especially when he was meeting people for the first time. Walter Isaacson, in his biography, Steve Jobs,  relates how Jobs approached him to write the book:

We talked a bit about the Aspen Institute, which I had recently joined, and I invited him to speak at our summer campus in Colorado. He’d be happy to come, he said, but not to be onstage. He wanted, instead, to take a walk so we could talk. That seemed a bit odd. I didn’t yet know that taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation.

Like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey believe in the power of long walks to discuss important matters.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has become equally famous for his walks — in his case with people he wants to hire.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and the mobile-payments startup Square, stated, “My favorite thing to do to relax is walking. If I’m with a friend we have our best conversations while walking. If there’s an ocean view it’s great.”

So while the pedaconference (a term made famous by the TV show The West Wing, which often depicted breathless meetings taking place along the halls of the White House) may be particular to the topography of Silicon Valley, it seems that there are opportunities almost anywhere to have such a meeting, even if it’s indoors.

And one of the key advantages of such meetings, besides the obvious health benefits, is that it likely won’t include PowerPoint slides.

P.S. Two thumbs up if you read this during a meeting!


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