I propose that we undertake a rigorous and critical analysis of our assumptions about meetings. It starts with a few questions.
Can we justify the meeting cost?
Consider this proposition: The most significant default ‘opportunity cost’ for a meeting is actually getting work done.
If 10 people meet for one hour, 10 working hours are absorbed by the meeting — the equivalent in time of a full quarter of a workweek. This can also be quantified in financial terms: it costs $400 for 10 people salaried at $40 to meet for one hour. Define these cost explicitly, for example: “This meeting will cost our project $400 and 10 productive working hours.”
By default, every meeting naturally subtracts time and resources that could otherwise be leveraged for achieving the project’s objectives. A clear justification and cost/benefit analysis of this expense should adorn every meeting agenda. It should be the responsibility of whoever calls a meeting to explain the necessity of its imposition on productive work time.
Unless the meeting is a necessity, it is a counterproductive waste of people’s time and organizational resources.
Who should call the meeting?
Who is in the best position to describe the necessity of incurring the cost of a meeting?
The only person who is categorically ‘working’ in a meeting is the manager or executive who, for their work, believe it necessary to collect everyone into the same room to receive updates, issue instructions, or to discuss options. Everyone else in the meeting desists from work for the duration of the meeting. For a majority of participants, then, meetings are the opposite of productivity. Meetings should be considered, above all, as interruptions to work, and should therefore be considered as counterproductive activities unless they can be otherwise justified.
Managers and executives must, by nature of their position, measure their personal productivity, output, and deliverables through the activity of others. These are the people mostly likely to assume that meetings represent productive work. Meetings exist to serve the purposes and function of management: for managers and executives, meetings themselves are a metric of job fulfillment. Outside of management, most meetings are not only veer towards valueless, they can easily become burdens. It is therefore incumbent upon managers and executives to recognize the inherent trade-off: every unnecessary meeting is an impediment and obstacle to achieving a project’s objectives. Meetings are liabilities for productive work, not assets.
Calling a non-essential meeting just ‘because we should meet’ not only lacks strategic focus and purpose, it iterates the point that management is driven more by mere traditional protocols and cultures of management than by a focus and purposefulness towards a mutually shared goal with subordinates.
Is there any other way to more effectively share information asynchronously?
If such an alternative exists, calling a meeting is an irresponsible imposition on other people’s time.
If reading a few bullet-points from meeting minutes is considered sufficiently informative to warrant the keeping and distribution of meeting minutes, why not forgo the expense of interrupting everyone’s work for the sake of a meeting in the first place? Why not rather direct administrative assistants to compile and then disseminate updates or data asynchronously?
If a 2 hour meeting for 10 staff members is replaced by a memorandum or video that can be read or viewed individually in 5 minutes, the very same updates can be delivered at an expense of 50 collective minutes, instead of 20 collective hours — saving 96% of the staff time otherwise lost to the meeting.
Are we pretending that ‘meeting’ is a synonym for ‘collaboration’?
If ‘true collaboration’ consists in hearing, understanding, and acting together toward a mutually shared goal, the more people you haul into a meeting, the less collaborative it becomes. Arguably, the bigger the meeting, the less margin there is for depth of conversation and the more the ideas of extroverted and outspoken individuals will shift the outcomes at the expense of input from quieter, measured, and calculating members. In this sense, meetings scale inversely to meaningful collaboration.
Meetings insist on the illusion that if a group sit in the same room together at a scheduled time for a reschedule duration, they will work together more effectively than if they self-organized, interacted on an ad hoc basis, or self-brokered knowledge sharing mechanisms among themselves. The collateral damage here is acute: the more unnecessary meetings scheduled, the more any self-organizing ‘equilibrium’ of collaboration and knowledge sharing is disincentivized. Time for such activity is usurped by unnecessary meetings.
The idea that people work together the most effectively when they are called to gather around structured agendas and reports is an ideological and cultural artifact. It inherently assumes a corporate hierarchy and a capitalist model of structural accountability. This point alone does not make meetings evil: it only means they might implicitly serve a purpose that might be at odds with the stated purpose for which they are called.
Is this meeting an excuse to socialize?
If so, great! Let’s go to the pub and socialize. Buy a few rounds for the cause of comradeship. It should be assumed that there is zero need to interrupt everyone’s work time to promote emotional connection as a corollary activity, especially as most of us tend to resent paternalistic efforts to manage our social lives on our behalf. If the ‘need’ in the workplace is for people to spend more time together, do not guise nudges towards social bonding beneath a pile of agendas and reports.
The simple criteria: is it necessary?
The point of these questions is simply to ascertain: is the meeting necessary? A valuable meeting is a necessary meeting. An unnecessary meeting is a tragic misuse of other people’s time, which comes with a significant toll on the broader cognitive and time resources.
We should expect that every manager or executive who calls a meeting can clearly describe the necessity of the meeting. Justifying a meeting for the purposes of ‘a check-in,’ ‘sharing updates,’ or receiving ‘progress reports’ is a necessity only when there is absolutely no other mechanism for more efficiently sharing the necessary information with the necessary people.
Interrupting the time that people have allotted to them in order to perform their work is costly — the cost is the work itself. It is a safe assumption that meetings are costliest of all options.
Some ideas for responding to meeting invitations
Demand a clear explanation why the meeting is absolutely necessary
What if our ‘organizational default’ became this mantra instead: we do not convene a meeting unless it is a categorically imperative solution to a communication problem that can not be solved in any other possible way. Want to maximize the efficiency, focus, and mental well-being in your workplace? Eliminate as many unnecessary meetings as you have the power to eliminate.
A meeting is necessary if it is the only way to solve a specific problem. What is the problem? If there is no solvable problem on the table, there is probably no point in attending the meeting
Refuse to attend if it is unclear what the problem is or why you or your fellow attendees have been selected for invitation. A constructive meeting is one that is called to resolve a specific issue that only involves the specific people who have the ability to execute a resolution.