Meeting Fatigue – Much Ado About All of Those Meetings
This is the fourth article in a series of articles I have written exploring the management of UX design meetings. The first article in the series explored the common mistakes we make in design meetings and how to avoid them. The second article explored 9 methods to improve your design meetings. And the third article outlined 8 essential techniques in defending design designs. In this article, we’ll concentrate on meeting fatigue and how to minimize the amount of meetings you attend so you maximize those you do attend.
Dan taps his foot and squirms in his chair. He looks at his watch, inwardly groaning as he realizes he is only 15 minutes into a 1-hour meeting. The meeting was called yesterday to discuss the new dress code for the organization and remote work policies. The meeting organizer sits in the front of the large boardroom reading directly from the same set of slides she attached to the meeting invite. The meeting could have been replaced with a simple email.
Sarah sits opposite Dan, sending instant messages to him quipping at the uselessness of the meeting they are both enduring and smiling over her laptop at him. An hour before this meeting the two of them had just discussed meaningless meetings and how there are too many of them in their organization.
This meeting has no less than a dozen executive-level attendees – all of whom are quite likely paid hefty salaries. Dan looks around the room and begins quickly calculating the labor costs of this meeting to the organization. With all of the intellectual capital in the room, Dan theorizes surely something more productive could be achieved. Most of the attendees in the room have their laptops open and are clearly somewhere other than in the meeting. Since it is impossible for humans to truly multitask, they can, in no way, be active participants.
If this were the only meeting of this sort in his day, it wouldn’t be such an issue for Dan. But, his days are filled with meetings that are poorly organized, poorly managed and do not necessarily require his attendance.
Dan is powerless over the situation. It’s a cultural aspect of the organization. Changing it would require more authority than he holds.
Dan’s situation is not unique. If your organization is like any other, your schedule is plagued with meetings. Your entire day might consist of going from one meeting to another from 9 to 5. Small and large issues are discussed, few decisions are made and the outcome of many meetings is to have another meeting for continued discussion. Unfortunately, this is normal.
Why does this happen in organizations? Organizations are comprised of humans – each with individual agendas, viewpoints and approaches in how they work. There is a certain amount of disorganization in any organization because an organization is a bunch of individuals attempting to move towards a shared goal. This usually results in some form of controlled chaos as we sense-make and attempt to align. And, meetings are generally focused on some form of alignment. Alignment requires people in the organization to come together. The solution for many organizations is to hold meetings. But also, these meetings are our knee-jerk reactions as to how to handle anything in an organization.
Why this happens is less important than what we can do about it. A quick internet search will quickly yield numerous articles filled with statistics lacking no true sources as well as recommendations to combat what is often referred to as meeting fatigue. The problem with many of these articles is they offer no-brainer advice that, in most instances, could not be implemented unless you happen to sit in high places. In other words, most of us are powerless to do much about the increasing number of meetings we attend daily. I’ll get back to this point in a moment, but let’s first take a look at the different types of unnecessary meetings we attend and what the common recommendations are to avoid meeting fatigue.
Types of unnecessary meetings
Meetings to update – These meetings are nothing more than meetings where you update someone (usually someone in a position higher than you) as to your recent activities or the status of your work. They are generally a waste of your time because you already know what you are working on. However, if you are a slacker (McFly), they do the serve the purpose of holding you accountable for deadlines and deliverables. But, if they hired the right person and you aren’t a slacker, this can only mean one of two things. Either your supervisor doesn’t know you well enough to trust you will get the job done or they have control issues and need to reassure themselves you will get the job done. It could be a combination of the two.
Meetings instead of a simple email – This is the meeting described above where someone stands at the front of the room and painstakingly reads through a slide deck or some other document. They could have sent this document via email, but instead decided to not prepare for the meeting and hold a “story time” where they read to you word-for-word from the document. Perhaps they feared you would not read the email since, in addition to the scores of useless meetings you attend, you also routinely combat unnecessary emails striving for “inbox zero.”
Meetings with no clear purpose or outcome – This one is usually the result of someone not preparing and will often be labeled as the all-to-familiar “brainstorming” meeting, which seems to be a catch-all for “we don’t know what we’re doing or want to do.” A primary way to identify these meetings is to determine whether or not there were any action items or outcomes of the meeting. If there weren’t, then the meeting had no purpose and was just a group of people talking for an hour. Additionally, if the meeting leads to another meeting, there was probably no purpose to the first meeting.
Standing meetings – see above because these meetings usually have a purpose in the beginning phases, but eventually turn into rote gatherings with no clear purpose except to update someone who holds them. This is because you will lIkely run out of content for the meeting eventually. I have one standing meeting per week with my team and will cancel it if our schedule is “business as usual.” Stand-up meetings are another pet peeve of mine because they are standing meetings. Don’t waste an entire team’s time with something you can do by stopping by a few people’s desks.
The runaway meeting – This is a meeting where there may be a clear purpose, but there is no clear agenda with times assigned for each topic. As a result, people veer off topic and the discussion moves from the intended subject matter to a discussion of an ancillary topic and eventually moves to global warming and the new Netlflix series someone just watched. I may be exaggerating here, but we’ve all been in those meetings where we find ourselves way off topic 45 minutes into a 1-hour meeting.
The problem with all of these useless meetings really boils down to poor meeting management and sometimes poor management, period. I have been on both the attending side of these meetings and also one of the poor managers. Ironically, I think the reason meetings become poorly managed is because the person holding the meeting has too many meetings to manage. It’s a vicious cycle.
Let’s turn to the common recommendations for combatting “Too Many Meetings Syndrome” – TMMS. I’ve been reading articles for months on this and not just from obscure websites, but from major sites such as the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Forbes and Entrepreneur Magazine. I’ve found advice from Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Guy Kawasaki and other major league business leaders. Here are the trends I found.
Hold meetings as a last resort – Figure out if a quick 5 minute chat, email or phone call can take the place of a formal meeting. We often call meetings more out of habit than necessity. This technique works if you have the power to enforce it. If you are just a “minion” attending, it’s not particularly helpful advice.
Ensure all meetings have a clear purpose and agenda – A no-brainer, but very hard to enforce. This technique is related to the technique above where meetings become habitual and we just have them without truly defining what it is we want to get out of the meeting.
Feel free to reject or decline meeting requests – This works as long as you don’t work in a culture where the organizer shows up at your desk 5 minutes after you declined requesting your attendance.
Only schedule meetings for as long as they need to be (keeping in mind a meeting will likely go on for as long as it is scheduled even if you don’t need that much time to cover the issues) – 37 Signals of Basecamp fame discussed this in their book, Rework, and lamented at how Outlook boxes us into 30-minute segments.
Ensure only the essential people are in the room and/or invited to the meeting – Apple is famous for booting people from meetings who do not need to attend. The more voices you have in a meeting, the more likely it is that the meeting will go over schedule and the less likely it is you will reach a consensus or intelligible plan of action.
Hold unplugged meetings – Essentially, this means no laptops or phones. If you have the power, I’d highly suggest this. In the past 14 years I have watched meeting after meeting ensue with people surfing the net or texting their loved ones while they should be paying attention. Of course, it could be that they didn’t need to be in the meeting in the first place and should have never been invited.
Meetings should close with clear action items for moving forward (otherwise the meeting was a waste of time and labor) – Don’t end a meeting by stating we will have another meeting to continue. That is just poor meeting management in most cases. I do recognize there are exceptions to this. But generally speaking, this should not happen often. There should be a clear outcome for a meeting given the labor and time cost associated with having the appropriate people in the room.
Most of this advice is what I would consider common sense. But, all of it is problematic for a few reasons. First, the above advice would assume you have the authority to put them all of those items into action (as I note above). That is who it is written for – the people who are organizing the meetings. Those employees are usually either at a higher level in the organization or they acting on behalf of someone who is. Second, all of this advice would require a cultural shift in the organization from leadership down. That cultural shift would have to be one where the organization is self-aware and efficiency becomes a top priority
The problem is, most organizations are not self-aware. Even when you move down to the department and team levels, most individuals, as a group, are not self-aware. That is, organizations and teams are not aware of how inefficient they are as a result of their work behaviors. Meetings become an unquestionable method to solve any issue that arises in the office. Is your project behind schedule? Have a meeting. Have a problem with a particular process? Have a meeting. Upset about the conditions in the Middle-East and lack of world peace? Have a meeting. We believe meetings will solve any problem when they are likely part of the problem.
Another reason why organizations lack self-awareness is because individual desires and goals often usurp the greater good of the team or organization. That is, someone will decide a meeting (one that will serve their agenda) is more important than the individuals’ time in the meeting or greater goal of the team. They fail to stop and consider what the best use of time is for achieving measurable outcomes.
But what do you do if you are not part of the upper echelon and don’t have the ability to change or shape the culture? If you are a “foot soldier” (i.e. minion) or just middle management, you won’t have the power to demand an agenda or kick people off the meeting request if they are non-essential. And, you can only decline so many meetings before someone higher on the food chain shows up at your desk as I note above.
To be perfectly honest, there isn’t too much you can do about it. You have found yourself sucked into the whirlwind of inefficient corporate America. But, the things you can do about it involve breaking the rules and employing techniques beyond the common advice given in popular business literature. I consider these techniques “black ops” for combatting meeting fatigue.
I work in a creative field where I need blocks of time to think and create. Even if I only have 4 hours worth of meetings per day, they can sometimes be scheduled in such a way as they break up my entire day giving me no blocks of time to work or think. Here is what I have done over the past 14 years to maintain some semblance of sanity (those who know me would debate my sanity).
Block off your schedule for work – This has surprisingly worked for me in the past. Just block off your own calendar for the time you need to get work done. This is especially effective if you are essential personnel in the meeting and work with those who are considerate enough to not schedule over your unavailable times.
Track meetings in relation to your input – If you have a sympathetic supervisor, you can track your meetings in relation to those you have direct input for and those you needn’t have attended at all. Those meetings you didn’t need to attend were the ones where you said nothing and had no action items that would have pushed the project forward. You can later make a case to your supervisor to mitigate the meetings on your schedule with data to back it up.
Simply leave the meeting – Elon Musk has been vocal about this. If you are in a meeting where you decide you are not needed, simply leave. Elon says it best: “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
Delegate meeting attendance – This is the “divide and conquer” strategy and you don’t have to be a leader or supervisor to employ it. I have been using this one for years where I would split meetings with a colleague and have them update me later while I updated them on whatever meetings I attended for them. If you just find yourself double and triple-booked all of the time, this is an apt strategy to use.
As I have noted throughout this article, the culture of your organization will largely dictate just what measures you can take to combat too many meetings and poorly managed meetings. I have found the smaller the organization, the easier it is to employ the approaches detailed in this article. Larger organizations are like big ships where it takes a great amount of time to turn them around (and, thus, turn the culture around). Black ops may be more appropriate for larger organizations (if you can get away with those approaches).
The irony of it all is: The people who should be reading articles concerning meeting fatigue are too busy going to meetings to read them. And, the people who have the power to change all of this – well, they’re too busy setting up their next meeting.