In Defense of Meetings
The forward-thinking business world is united in the belief that meetings, by and large, are simply bad ideas. Bad meetings are the subject of popular TED talks. An Amazon search for business books on bad meetings returns over 250 results with titles like “Meetings Suck” and “Death By Meeting”. And, perhaps most tellingly, there are over 1,000 Dilbert strips on the topic.
Meetings are not only unpopular, but expensive. Inc. magazine claims that 99% of all meetings are “a complete waste of money. There are online tools to calculate the cost of a meeting, such as this one from the Harvard Business Review. Simply input the number of executives, their hourly wage, and the meeting duration. It can be surprising how quickly those numbers climb, especially in a group of mid-level executives.
However, the idea that meetings are resolutely awful is, like most pieces of conventional wisdom, a gross simplification that does real damage.
I’ve pushed back against similar platitudes about price transparency before, and now it’s time to come to the defense of that marginalized business event: the meeting.
Coordination is a Job
In some jobs, such as an analyst position, you may be able to complete your tasks on your own at your desk. But for most others, it is essential to interact and coordinate with other executives to align tasks and objectives.
This was brought home to me when I worked in sales operations for a digital company during my MBA years. Taught to think meetings were a waste of time, I was shocked to see how quickly my calendar filled up with appointments. Many days I was in meetings for 80% of my time in the office. How could this be?
I gradually learned that the entire purpose and value-add of my job was coordination. The sales organization needed to communicate its priorities to the IT department, and software developers needed sales to know the status of the various tools they were working on. I was that liaison.
When I was alone at my desk, most of the time I had little to do. I needed to be meeting with people to make any progress on tasks. My job was the meetings.
Some coordination can be handled by email or other software tools, but there are real limitations to those approaches as well, especially as companies grow in size. The back and forth discussion and quick clarification that meetings enable can be invaluable to effectively communicating information throughout an organization.
Face to Face Matters
Relatedly, I’ve increasingly learned that face to face interactions still have an important part to play in organizations. So long as we are creatures with corporeal bodies, being in close proximity with others adds to the effectiveness of communication.
Face to face can be abused, of course. Many consulting companies incorrectly argue that they must be constantly present in a client’s office to do their best work. This is often at best an excuse to inflate their billing for a given project, and at worst an attempt to have the client fund the consultancy’s own business development by diagnosing newer and bigger projects along the way. Munchausen syndrome by proxy exists in the business world, too.
But for important decisions, nothing can compete with face to face. Email cannot communicate the intricate information we encode in our tone of voice, facial expression, and body language, to name a few. Phone or video-conference can do better, but still fall well short of in-person. Without that information, executives in important discussions lack the context necessary to do their job effectively.
Decisions Getting Done
Note that I have been talking repeatedly about effectiveness. Email may be efficient, but it is not always effective. Meetings take longer than other forms of communication, but with a good meeting you can accomplish much more.
I wouldn’t be a good consultant without a copy of Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive on my bookcase, and there’s a reason he chose that word. Executives are paid to determine the right things to do and then to do them. Quickly doing the wrong thing is not a virtue.
When it comes to presenting a case, arguing points, building buy-in, and driving decisions, there is simply no way around a meeting.
Long Live the Meeting
Experienced executives should know that meetings are essential to performing many of the functions that are inherent to their role. Coordination and decision making, in the right setting, can be vastly improved with a meeting.
This isn’t to say, of course, that bad meetings don’t exist. Plenty do. Many can be replaced by an email or phone call. Meetings without agendas, structure, or clear outcomes are much less effective than they could be.
By all means, learn how to hold better meetings. But don’t pretend meetings themselves are the issue. They will continue to be an irreplaceable and invaluable aspect of running a good business.