How Did We End Up with So Many Meetings?

A History of Distrust and Micromanagement

Meetings are a necessity. Meetings also often stink. Typically, they are a waste of time. There are too many meetings—and most of them are often poorly-organized, lack coherent agendas, serve to do little more than reaffirm hierarchies than achieve results. As a result, poorly-run meetings cost companies $37 billion a year in lost productivity. Employees (including 65 percent of managers) say meetings keep them from getting work done, and job dissatisfaction increases exponentially.

Yet we spend more time than ever holding and attending meetings. The average executive spends 23 hours a week in meetings, more than double the time spent in the 1960s, according to University of North Carolina Charlotte Professor Cliff W. Scott. Thanks to the slow-but-steady embrace of telecommuting, advancements in technology that make it easier to hold meetings anywhere, and our nation’s longstanding myth that working harder and longer yields better results, we continue to drown in meetings.

So why do we have so many meetings? Thank the legacy of management scientists whose efforts did more to foster micromanagement and distrust than make workplaces more efficient. Add in the reality that workplaces are poorly-structured to achieve results, and there is little wonder why meetings rarely get the job done.

A legacy of distrust

Until the early 20th century, few Americans ever attended a work meeting. Sure, you would have attended a town hall or school board meeting if you lived in a small town. But in general, the only people attending meetings on any regular basis were politicians and the men who owned and ran corporations. Even for the latter, those were likely rare.

Then came Frederick Winslow Taylor and his concept of scientific management. Driven as much by distrust of workers and disdain for expertise and specialization as by the legitimate need to make it easier to bring millions of unskilled men to efficiently pump out more products, Taylor and his disciples thought micromanaging employees (and the underlying belief in centralized planning) was as critical to making workplaces efficient as the motion studies they used to set production quotas.

This meant requiring workers to punch time clocks in order to track how long they worked, and corporate bureaucracies that included workers reporting to several supervisors who tracked the assembly line (as well as each other). By the mid-20th century, this micromanagement spread into white-collar fields such as law through practices such as billable hours, under which partners and associates jot down every little thing they do during the workday.

Meetings became part of that micromanagement impulse. How can you trust your staff to do their jobs if you aren’t regularly conferring with them? Thus came the shop floor meetings where foremen grunted out orders, meetings up on the floors above where vice presidents dictated to mid-level managers, and meetings in the corporate suite where CEOs checked on everyone while crafting five-year plans. Over time, even more meetings, from those for crafting vision statements to those dreaded performance reviews, became the norm.

As the Soviet Union and many a once-powerful industrial giant found out, the micromanaging turned out to be ineffective and wasteful, especially as knowledge-based work with an emphasis in expertise and specialization became the norm. As gurus such as Peter Drucker and Nan Russell point out, trust is critical to the success of institutions.

Yet the distrust promoted by Taylor remains a specter in many workplaces – especially in the form of the endless meetings that remain the norm. As with cubicles and open floor plans, scheduling meetings often end up being more about command and control than about getting work done.

When meetings don’t work

But it isn’t just about the glut of meetings. It is also about how they are structured. As with the drive-bys and interruptions that make it difficult for you and your colleagues to do your best work, poorly-organized meetings are another way in which workplaces are structured to make innovation, creativity, and teamwork illusory.

Just 17 percent of executives said meetings were productive, according to a survey led by Harvard Business School Professor Leslie A. Perlow. They aren’t alone. Few people think that meetings foster productive teamwork or help them in their individual efforts. The disdain for them often shows up in colleagues showing up late for meetings as well as in those references to Dilbert comic strips about how meetings waste time.

Legendary management consultant Williams R. Daniels declared 22 years ago that poorly-structured meetings are signs of bad workplaces. This makes sense. After all, how can teams and colleagues trust each other if something as simple as a meeting agenda cannot be developed beforehand? Poorly-structured meetings waste the precious time you and your colleagues need to do the best work as well as help your institutions succeed in their missions.

A well-structured meeting is actually quite simple to put together. Michael Hyatt has a new book called No Fail Meetings, released today, that packed with ideas how to make meetings more focused, fewer, and shorter. (Buy your copy without delay.) But as with developing Focus Thursdays for uninterrupted work, making sure that meetings are well-structured takes intentional effort. This, of course, starts from the corporate suite and filters all the way down through the enterprise. But each one of us can take steps to both have better meetings when necessary—and fewer of them in the first place.

Why stop at Thursday?

In fact, in a sort of inverse Focus Thursday, Education technology entrepreneur Mattan Griffel suggests that meetings should be limited to one day during the week. That move would not only allow for you and your colleagues to gain uninterrupted time for work, it would even force people to decide whether a meeting is necessary in the first place. In the age of email, Slack, and other forms of communication, not every issue requires a face-to-face or teleconference.

While many organizations couldn't implement this advice right away, moving toward it would help. More focus time and fewer meetings is a step in the direction of greater productivity and greater job satisfaction.

We will never totally get away from meetings. But we can do a whole lot more with fewer of them, done right.

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