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Effective Meetings vs. Pointless Meetings: How to Tell the Difference
June 17, 2021

In the early days of a company’s growth, things are a lot simpler. You can rely more on "serendipity as a service" to keep projects and initiatives organized, and everyone has a decent idea of what people are prioritizing from week to week.

As organizations grow, however, it becomes harder and harder to answer "simple" questions around what people are working on, and which priorities company resources are being allocated to. Moreover, relationships within the organization become more difficult to maintain and develop as roles grow more specialized, and there’s less opportunity for direct collaboration.

All of this leads to a lot more meetings every week. And with so many things flying around, it can be really hard to know which ones to attend, and which ones to drop. In this article, you’ll learn the key differences between meetings that are truly effective and valuable, and those that are pointless and not worth the organization’s time.

Why do we have so many pointless meetings?

As a company grows, you have to start being more intentional about process and internal touchpoints to keep things moving forward.

This is typically what leads to an explosion of unnecessary meetings. Recurring meetings are often used to force cross-functional relationships into existence, or to build more verification into the system so that people (typically senior leaders) can answer questions like "Is this project on track to be delivered?" or "How many of our teams are working on the top 3 key priorities in our organization?" 

The problem is that these meetings are often a poor solution to a much larger problem around strategic and organizational cohesion. The assumption is that if you get enough managers in a room to talk about something important, good things will follow. Unfortunately, the reality for most organizations is very different: these meetings not only aren’t solving the core problems that the company wants to address, but they actually result in even more meetings spiraling out of them. 

For example, a single "Weekly Status" meeting might inadvertently lead to additional, redundant status meetings being created that are intended to address perceived gaps in the existing meeting. Topics might emerge during the meeting that lead to other ad-hoc meetings between different stakeholders who are present at the meeting. 

To put it simply, recurring meetings are often at the root of unnecessary meetings, because they're often a response to an issue that is much more complex and multifaceted to solve. This isn't to say that meetings can't be used as a part of the solution to this problem, but more to say that too many of them often just end up making things worse.

How to tell the difference between a pointless meeting and an effective one

Unnecessary meetings tend to have a few distinct characteristics. While you won’t necessarily see all of these elements in every single pointless meeting on your calendar, you’ll find at least one of these five indicators tends to be present:

1. They exist to fill a process gap

This is typically where a meeting is created primarily to "inform" or "update" an extremely large group about progress against organizational priorities and projects. Every middle manager is probably familiar with these kinds of status meetings. They're an immense timesink, especially as the organization grows in size and the number of people that have to be involved in a companywide status meeting increases exponentially. 

These meetings are really filling a gap in a process that is more asynchronous: for example, written status reports that can be reviewed weekly by senior leadership.

2. They involve a very large number of people

Any meeting with more than 8 or so people cannot -- almost by definition -- be useful in terms of achieving an outcome. Once a meeting has too many people in it, it becomes an “inform” meeting, and thus, exists primarily to fill a gap in process. Inevitably, even if the meeting involves a round-robin where everyone provides their status on a project, the vast majority of the people in the meeting do not need to be there.

3. They have low RSVP rates

People vote with their feet, and meetings are no exception. Meetings where the majority of people don't RSVP Yes (or even Maybe) to the event are likely viewed by many invitees as low-value and not worth their time. This is a good signal to the meeting organizer that they may need to rethink their strategy for gathering information without forcing everyone into a long status meeting.

4. The outcome and intention aren't clear

This is an obvious one, but it's too often overlooked by organizations. Every single meeting needs to have a clear and simple set of objectives and goals, and those goals cannot simply be information sharing. If the meeting doesn't result in some amount of work product being created, or some degree of decisions being made, then it's likely not a useful meeting.

5. They're duplicative

If you have a status meeting for your team, a status meeting for your department, and then an org-wide status meeting for managers, those are really just three versions of the same meeting where you have to come in and say three versions of the same thing to three different groups. Duplicative recurring meetings tend to be a big part of meeting fatigue for middle managers, particularly as the organization grows in size.

Limiting the impact of pointless meetings on your calendar

Lots of time management advice tells professionals to "just say no" to unnecessary meetings, and while this is certainly part of a strategy to reduce meeting fatigue and focus more time on your priorities, it's often an unrealistic approach to actually getting what you want. 

As a professional, you may not understand that you have far more influence than you realize in terms of shaping company culture, and in terms of structuring the kinds of meetings that exist within the organization. If you don't feel that the meetings you're being invited to are necessary or relevant, then model the behavior you want to see and propose it as an alternative.

A simple example of this is written status reporting. Teams and organizations that build a strong culture around short weekly reports that can be reviewed regularly reduce the need for recurring meetings that force everyone into a room for several hours every week. It also helps to build a good written record of where the organization's time is being allocated, and democratizes the process of status reporting so that a single meeting organizer doesn't have to be the sole chokepoint for every bit of status gathering.

Try looking at your calendar and mapping your recurring meetings to a status report. Ask yourself this question: how many of these meetings wouldn't have to exist if I wrote something down and shared it with my company weekly? Once you've sorted that out, propose it to the meeting organizer for those meetings as well as your manager.

At a minimum, you might find that you've effectively gotten yourself out of the meeting without ruffling feathers -- and more aspirationally, you might find that you've positively influenced the meeting load for the entire organization.

3 tips to avoid new pointless meetings getting booked on your calendar

Now that you’ve seen how to identify (and hopefully escape) the unnecessary meetings that were plaguing your calendar, how can you avoid new pointless meetings from invading your schedule again in the future?

1. Build a company culture around writing things down

Per the points above, a company that’s figured out how to scale using asynchronous processes (e.g., weekly status reports) will have a much lighter schedule in terms of recurring meetings. Building this muscle is hard, but it starts with every team having a ritual around documenting their workweek, and -- more importantly -- every senior leader regularly reviewing those reports so they can get the information they need and ask questions (either over email or in an ad-hoc small meeting) without having to bring everyone into a massive status meeting.

2. Audit your calendar and block time proactively

If you don't run your calendar, your calendar will run you. Every week, it's imperative to spend time inspecting your schedule to eliminate unnecessary meetings and organize your time around your priorities. 

If less than half of your meetings and solo work sessions are dedicated to your top 3-5 objectives, then you've got a problem. Your calendar should be a reflection of what matters to you, not a reflection of what you've been invited to. This approach makes you proactive instead of reactive when it comes to responding to meeting invites -- if you have a good sense of how your workweek is organized, you can make smarter tradeoff decisions.

3. If you need to say No, do so with context

Declining meetings is an art form, and can make a big impact on how you're perceived in the organization. While saying "No" to meetings is definitely a good way to keep your time defended, it's also a quick way to create some tension between you and your peers. Whenever possible, try to convey the "why" behind your No so that people understand the context of you declining it. It can make a huge difference in how your RSVP is received!

How does this fit with your organization?

While every organization is different, almost all face the same challenges when it comes to balancing time management with accountable processes to keep the train moving forward as you scale. It’s the organizations that prioritize employees time and invest in reducing inefficient redundancies that will reach their growth goals sooner, not to mention, keep a much happier workforce that feels their time and priorities are truly valued.

So, does your organization do a good job of minimizing unnecessary meetings for your workforce? Do you think you could get a couple hours back each week in unproductive meetings?

Share your thoughts with us on Twitter at @reclaimai to help others bring more productivity to their workweek, and eliminate all the unnecessary meetings that are slowing down their priorities!

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