I hate meetings. Everybody does. Yet Nancy Koehn, who teaches at the Harvard Business School, estimates that there will be 11 million meetings taking place today in the United States. Yes, just today. Maybe you’re sitting in a boring one right now, peeking at this on your phone. Not much consolation to know that millions of others are stuck in the same conference-table-shaped circle of hell.
Meetings are supposed to be about discovery and buy-in. That’s it. Someone has decided that a group needs to be informed about some new idea or process or scheme, and by the end of the meeting everyone has supposedly bought into this new vision of the world—one that, if you’re lucky, didn’t come with a 50-slide PowerPoint deck. But meetings instead too often end up being about preening and politicking, and devolve into productivity-robbing, mind-numbing monotony.
Given that the hours taken up by meetings increase when the profit motive is absent—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—many companies have their own homeopathic cure for meeting madness.
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. Someone I met who runs a music startup bans electronics, restricts meetings to a single topic—and limits them to 10 minutes.
Here’s a trick I’ve seen 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. Perfect.
But my favorite meeting cure was practiced by Craig Benson, a founder of the networking company Cabletron Systems in the 1980s and governor of New Hampshire from 2003-05. At Cabletron, he 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. No one has time for preening when everyone is shifting weight from foot to foot.
Then there’s Ray Dalio at the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates. To encourage “real honesty”—not the usual posturing and hot air that everyone soon forgets—he years ago began videotaping meetings. Every employee can go back and review the tapes. Mr. Dalio says he watches them all the time. It’s not for everyone. There is an 18-month adjustment period to get to “the other side,” he says, and 35% of new hires quit during those 18 months. “Radical truth through radical transparency” is the aim, Mr. Dalio has said when discussing the policy, but I’m not sure that’s what you’ll get. People who know that they’re speaking on camera for the record are more likely to clam up—wait, maybe he’s onto something.
The discovery that meetings are meant to foster can be delivered by technology, without the need for the meetings themselves. Digital collaboration tools allow employees within companies to stay up to speed with each other, much as Facebook and Twitter keep friends and colleagues aware of what you’re up to without having to meet them face to face. Salesforce.com lets companies with up to 5,000 employees use its data- and file-sharing app Chatter at no charge. Yammer, Jive, Slack and other apps can minimize if not eliminate meetings if information-sharing is the goal.
Accomplishing the buy-in function of meetings without a physical get-together is tougher. This takes strong leadership and can be accomplished by persuasion and delegating responsibility so far down the org chart that individual workers are empowered. They buy-in to themselves.
But that approach means a lot of work for the person in charge. Meetings may be the more attractive alternative—if kept to a minimum, with the fewer participants the better. Meeting productivity drops as the number of attendees increases. Over three and you might as well just burn money. I have a 50-slide deck to prove it.