Sense and nonsense about meetings

We spend a lot of time in meetings

But it is not always very clear why these meetings are organized. And given that many people actually do not really talk during or contribute to meetings, it makes you wonder whether all attendees need to be present. Why are employers paying money for having perfectly good employees sit through meetings which they do not add value to?

Three good reasons for inviting me to your meeting

With a limited time budget available, how can you entice me to come to your meeting:

  • You want to share some information with a larger group and the information cannot be conveyed in any other form. Perhaps you need to explain a prototype, or haven’t had the chance to work on the slides … reasons other than your procrastination are valid if the group requires this information to continue its work;
  • You need to understand a specific issue and you have been able to bring together the people confronted with the issue, the people that may understand part of the issue and the people charged with dealing with the issue. This type of meeting, if properly run, will allow for a faster knowledge transfer and idea generation;
  • You need to work collaboratively on a solution … I know there are a lot of very good tools out there, in the cloud, which allow you to do this online. In my experience, doing it face 2 face still beats most alternatives, but I am ready to be surprised.

All the other possible reasons really do not seem to be valid enough for me.

43 Folders

Listen to (and watch) Merlin Mann over at 43 Folders talk about meetings in his excellent lecture to the Twitter team. You can find this talk here. Watching this talk got me thinking …

Measuring the burden of meetings

My three good reasons are not the only good reasons. But let’s step away from the intangible aspects for a minute. Is there a way we can start quantifying the burden of meetings?

Calculating the costs of a meeting

  1. Calculating the meeting preparation cost: A meeting is not just about bringing a number of people together in a room. Often documents, such as slide decks, need to be prepared. These decks need to be printed … and someone needs to take the time to do that and buy the paper to print everything on, if paper is your poison. The printing is often the work of executive assistants, but these people need to get paid as well. And perhaps some young collaborator was charged with gathering the information in the deck. Again a cost which is directly related to the decision of having the meeting. And what about the time spent calling people, inviting them over, sending emails, rescheduling meetings … All these things cost time and therefore money to the company.

  2. Calculating the meeting infrastructure cost: Once prepared a meeting can get underway. But wait, in some cases there is a real cost to a meeting room. A number of organizations charge a small sum to a company project as a representative cost for a meeting room. And what if you have no meeting room, and need to go outside for this meeting? The cost gets very real very fast.

  3. Calculating the meeting execution cost: Once all invitees are gathered in the room, the meeting gets underway, the clock starts ticking and the cost meter starts running. Every single person at that meeting has a cost to the company. This cost is real, as they are being paid wages. This may not be the only cost. If the alternative to presence at the meeting would be another, perhaps more relevant activity, there is a real opportunity cost here.

Calculating the benefits of a meeting

There are of course reasons to have a meeting. A good meeting has very clear objectives which align with a specific goal of the organization. If this is a meeting related to a significant project, and the contribution of the meeting to the success of the project is estimated at – say – 20%, it may well pay to have the meeting. Now, to be honest, I’ve seldom been party to meetings which had such a large impact on a project. Listing all potential benefits, quantifying them in monetary amounts and assigning contribution percentages to them will allow for some quantification of the benefit.

Bringing it all together

We add all the costs, and we add all the benefits. Then we divide the benefits by the costs. What are possible scenarios?

  • The percentage is higher than 100%: in this case, the benefits far outweigh the costs, and the meeting should take place;
  • The percentage is lower than 100% … and here lies the rub … because the meeting will end up costing you. The question is whether the benefits are worth it in the longer run.

For the second scenario, I can imagine a situation where it pays to bring in a senior member of the management team in case you are working on a project where his or her input based on experience is very relevant, even if the percentage will be lower than 100. After all, you will significantly increase your chances of succesfully engaging with the project. On the other hand, it may be that you have underestimated the contribution of that meeting to the project.

Example sheet

I’ve quickly developed a very basic spreadsheet to illustrate. Please feel free to use and adapt. You can find the spreadsheet here.