Why most meetings are terrible and should be stopped

Bad meetings.jpg

Most meetings are terrible and should be stopped because:

  • They’re unproductive

  • They create false clarity

  • They breed like bunnies

  • They waste our brains

Meetings are unproductive

Most meetings share little information. They’re unstructured and poorly designed. And the time cost is staggering. Think about how often you’re pulled away from work to attend meetings in which little gets done. These meetings disrupt our flow. There’s also an additional time cost involved every time you switch your attention to a different task.

How much time is really taken by a one hour meeting? If it’s held with one person, one hour. But that’s not a meeting, is it?. More than likely, your meeting has multiple, even tens of people. Five people X a one hour meeting = five hours of time cost. 10 people X a two hour meeting = 20 hours.

What could your team get done if they got back 20 hours, today? Put another way, what is your team not doing because they got pulled into a two hour meeting? Yikes!

One more thought on the time cost of meetings comes from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, authors of Rework. They ask: who schedules a 7 minute meeting? No one. Typically, if you need 7 minutes of your team’s time, you’ll probably schedule 30 minutes. But what if 7 minutes is all the time you need for the task at hand? What do you do with the other 23 minutes? You fill it with words. You fill it with conversation that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Like two people walking side-by-side on a 10-foot-wide sidewalk, you and your team fill it up, no matter how oversized the vessel.

Not every minute of every day needs to be productive. It’s an illusion to think you can design your way out of human needs for distraction and play. But if you need to play, make time to play. Don’t schedule a 30 minute meeting for a 7 minute task. Schedule a 7 minute session, then 23 minutes for social or free time if that’s what you need. By doing this, you won’t be mistaking one for the other.

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Meetings create false clarity

We’re masters of sophisticated language. This can be a strength. But it can also be folly. We introduce abstract concepts that sound great. But they're so poorly defined that we end up inserting on our own, often different meaning. We talk past one another without even realizing it.

I’ve seen this happen over and over in team meetings. Someone has an idea. Another team member gets excited and throws their voice into the idea. It spreads like wildfire and the entire team is ready to charge ahead and make the idea happen.

Some people call this groupthink. Whatever it’s called, it’s hard to stop once it’s out of the bag. (Note: this is a massive force that can be harnessed in productive ways if you design your team’s time together with intent.)

What happens if you ask each team member to independently make the “single idea” tangible with a rough sketch, skit, or model? The story changes. You realize you’re not a highly organized crew of like-minded shipmates rowing in unison. You’re a band of pirates with different visions of the treasure you’re after and where you think it’s buried. (Note: the best approach is to skip the words altogether and go straight to independent idea generation as described in this HBR article and in the Decision Sprint process below.)

The tragedy is most meetings end with words, not challenges or ideas expressed in some tangible form. When we’re not stuck in pitch and debate mode, we catch hold of idea infatuation. But we aren’t infatuated with a single, shared idea. We just think we are.

We’re actually infatuated with our own versions of the idea. We walk away from our meeting with confidence that we’re on the same page, only to find out later—sometimes after months of work and boatloads of money—that we’ve been rowing in opposite directions.

When we discover that our coworkers are not on the same page as us, our first reaction is “what are those idiots thinking?” As one of my colleagues warns: beware, you may be someone else’s idiot. Name calling aside, there are real consequences of the false clarity our words and our "words-only meetings" bring about.


Meetings breed like bunnies

What happens at the conclusion of most meetings? We schedule another meeting. We're optimistic about what we can accomplish with a meeting. When we come up short, we schedule another one. We believe if we did more of the unsuccessful thing we just did, we’ll somehow get the outcome we’re after.

So we schedule another meeting. And then another. And another. Soon, we’re working on six different projects each with weekly or monthly meetings and—imagine this—no time to do the actual work.

It’s like a bad consultant’s dream. And everyone else’s nightmare. It’s literally insane to do this. But it happens all the time.

Our inboxes get flooded with meeting invitations. Our calendars fill up faster than the sinking ship our abstract ideas are built on. Not only is our time sucked away by meetings, we’re forced to spend time managing our checkerboard calendars. Meeting emails, updates, conflicts, color coding, reminders, reschedule notices—it’s madness!

I love bunnies, but c’mon! (Yes there’s a person under this bunny horde on the Japanese island of Ōkunoshima where bunny overpopulation is a  serious problem .)

I love bunnies, but c’mon! (Yes there’s a person under this bunny horde on the Japanese island of Ōkunoshima where bunny overpopulation is a serious problem.)


Meetings waste our brains

Ever listen to the content of most meetings that involve an “open floor” in which anyone can speak their mind? Try it. From my experience, people are doing one of two things: they’re pitching something, or shutting someone down.

I call them “pitch and debate” meetings. They’re wildly unproductive, but fascinating to observe when you remove yourself from the “moral matrix” described by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Why are “open floor” meetings a waste of time? Because our brains are terrible at both creating and evaluating ideas at the same time (as described in this HBR article, the same one cited above). Human brains are overtaxed when doing this for one idea, let alone multiple ideas. The end result is little progress and a lot of frustration.

Decision Sprint training in action—idea generation.

Decision Sprint training in action—idea generation.

Meet Decision Sprints: The meeting killer

There’s an alternative to endless, unproductive meetings. We call it a Decision Sprint. We run these for clients and in training sessions to give people a glimpse into how sprints work (check out our post on how to run Decision Sprints). 

Decision Sprints are a structured alternative to traditional meetings. They involve working independently with structured decision making and minimal discussion. They start with your team identify and selecting a challenge, then creating and selecting a top idea, and finally creating detailed steps for implementing your selected idea with deadlines and task owners.

Decision Sprints are a productive alternative because they're designed to address the pitfalls of traditional meetings:

  • They're productive. Decision Sprints focus on challenges, then ideas (as opposed to jumping to ideas too soon). They also separate challenges and ideas into discrete parts (as opposed to mixing the two). Challenge and idea development are done individually (avoiding groupthink). Idea generation and idea evaluation are also separated (rather than attempting to do both at once). And decision making is structured and fast (rather than chaotic and prolonged).

  • They provide clarity. Decision Sprints avoid groupthink to create a clearer picture of each individual's thinking (as opposed to groupthink, which makes you feel like you're on the same page when you're not). Sticky notes are used to capture challenges and ideas, which require clear, succinct communication (as opposed to long orations that cloud what's really being said). And they conclude with the creation of detailed next steps for implementing the idea that was selected (as opposed to abstract dialogue).

  • They harness our brainpower. Decision Sprints are productive in part because they harness our full brainpower. Rather than zapping our brainpower by mixing both challenges and ideas, or idea generation and evaluation, Decision Sprints separate these tasks. Our brains are only good at doing one of these tasks at a time. Decision Sprints are designed specifically for the way we are hardwired.

  • They're one and done. Unlike meetings, Decision Sprints don't lead to additional Decision Sprints to hash out the same topic. You walk away with a decision made, and clear next steps for addressing a challenge you and your team selected. Period.


If you must hold a meeting

If you must have a meeting, here’s a few tips from our experience mixed in with guidance from the authors of Rework (cited above):

  • Set strict time limits. When time’s up, end the meeting. No exceptions.

  • Less is more. If you only need three people, invite three people. Don’t invite more than you need.

  • Set a clear agenda. If you don’t have time to prepare one, reschedule your meeting.

  • Clearly identify the challenge. What are you trying to accomplish? Now tell that to your team as simply as possible. Take time to say what your challenge is, and what it is not.

  • Separate challenges from ideas. We are problem solvers and dot connectors. But we jump to ideas too soon. Set clear rules for digging into your challenges, and call out times when your team drifts into idea mode before your challenge is fully understood.

  • Meet at the source of the challenge. Problems with production? Meet where production happens. The challenge is easier to investigate and ideas become more concrete when you occupy the same space as your challenge.

  • End with a decision and clear next steps. Make a decision, even if you know it’s imperfect. Planning is guessing. Stop planning, make a decision, and figure out a low-risk way (like using a Design Sprint) to test whether your idea is working. If it’s not working, stop doing it. Revisit your other ideas, pick one, and try again.


Key takeaway

Way too many meetings are terrible. But getting your team aligned and making key decisions doesn't have to be a miserable endeavor. Decision Sprints are a simple, effective, and fast way to reach a decision that avoids the meeting pitfalls that bog so many of us down everyday. If you have to run a meeting, use the tips above. But wherever possible, try a Decision Sprint instead. Give it a try in place of your next meeting and drop us a line to let us know how it went. Happy Decision Sprinting!

Want to see a Design Sprint in action? Check out our upcoming Design Sprint Bootcamp with Jake Knapp, the creator of Design Sprints and author of Sprint. Learn more about our Bootcamp at wearewily.com/training.

Eric Gorman is owner and designer at Wily, an agency that makes design easy so people can unlock their genius. Eric has helped design and deliver Design Sprints for Fortune 100 and 500 firms, federal and city governments, and nonprofit institutions. Follow him on Facebook (fb.me/eric.j.gorman) and Twitter (twitter.com/ericjgorman).