How much time do we waste in meetings?

meeting time wastedIn the abstract, a lot of sources claim that 30% to 50% of meeting time is wasted.

We feel that this number is probably way too optimistic (more time is wasted on average). If you’d like to understand why, keep reading. If you’d like to see what 30% waste translates to in terms of time and money for your meetings, you can try our meeting cost calculator. Or, you can just jump to the conclusion

Studies, Surveys, Reports, Oh My!

Determining actual waste in meetings is a really difficult problem. A lot of the information out there is hard to parse.

For example, you’ll find many articles and infographics (such as this one from Atlassian) that claim 50% or more of meeting time is wasted. It is difficult to determine where these reports get their information.  

The Atlassian infographic supports its claim by pointing to the widely referenced MCI/Verizon Study conducted in 1998. It also references the meeting information site which in turn points to the obscure 1994 book “Better Business Meetings“ by Robert B. Nelson and Peter Economy. The book (which I own) is very lightly referenced, using primarily popular press articles to back its points. It does claim, “Over 50 percent of our meeting time is wasted. Research has shown that meeting efficiency averages 47 percent.”  The claim is NOT sourced at all. That’s the end of the trail. 

As to the MCI / Verizon study, it should be noted that this was a market survey (not a scientific one), and that it admittedly targeted “heavy meeting goers”. Interestingly, the Verizon study suggests that 66% of meetings are productive:

Twenty-two percent of meetings were deemed “extremely productive.” Forty-four percent were “very productive and 27% were only “somewhat productive.” The respondents said that 6% were “not very productive” while only 1% were “not at all productive.””

But this begs the question: how productive is “somewhat productive”? 50 percent? 25 percent?

The point I would make is that MOST of the reports and studies you find:

  • are not contemporary/recent
  • rely on small, informal groups of survey participants
  • are full of industry bias targeting a specific outcome
  • rely on self-reporting impressions of how productive meetings were

That doesn’t mean these sources are wrong. It just means that many of the numbers you read about meetings may be on shaky ground.  Also, I do not want to pick on Atlasssian alone, because there are many other posts, infographics and commentary about meetings that rely on dubious and circular evidence.  

Reliable Evidence?

One of the best sources of information I have found on this topic is the peer-reviewed conference publication “Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice” by Romano and Nunamaker (2001). This summary paper presents findings from a number of original research efforts, including several on meeting effectiveness. Admittedly, all of the original studies seem to rely on self-reported opinions of effectiveness. The original studies cited seem to agree on a range of overall effectiveness between 50 and 75% (25%-50% waste).

Still subjective. Still dubious.

Another Approach

If subjective “How effective are your meetings?” surveys are dubious, is there a better way?

I don’t know a way to completely escape the subjectivity trap. But I think there is a way we can get a better estimate of meeting productivity.

To start, let’s imagine what the world’s most productive and effective meeting might look like. I think that such a meeting would include the following characteristics:

  1. The meeting is necessary because it could not be accomplished through other means that might be more effective.
  2. A clear, stated purpose and desired outcomes. The purpose and desired outcomes are focused (avoiding omnibus meetings).  
  3. An agenda that describes how the meeting will be executed (topics, activities, etc.).
  4. Preparation materials are known and available in advance.
  5. The right participants are identified and have time to process any preparatory material.
  6. The meeting is scheduled at a time that allows everyone required to be fully present.
  7. The group reviews and has input on the purpose, outcome and agenda (making collaborative adjustments if needed).
  8. The meeting starts on time.
  9. The group creates (or reviews) and sticks to a set of working agreements for the meeting.
  10. Someone in the meeting is responsible for facilitating effective meeting flow, in accord with the agenda and agreed target outcomes.
  11. Discussion on each topic is focused. A timer and facilitation is used to constrain discussion. Time for a topic is expanded but only by agreement of the participants with an understanding of how the agenda and outcomes may be impacted.
  12. A parking lot is used to capture interesting or valuable topics that come up but are not aligned with the meeting’s purpose and target outcomes.
  13. All participants are fully engaged, and feel the necessary trust and safety to speak freely and honestly about all topics.
  14. The decision-making process and decision-authority is understood for any decisions.
  15. Action items, decisions and communications plans are captured visually (for all to see) as the meeting progresses.
  16. The meeting is closed in an orderly manner. Action items and decisions are reviewed and agreed by all present.
  17. Each participant provides feedback (possibly anonymous) on the effectiveness of the meeting and how it could be improved in the future. The meeting facilitator and participants take time to reflect on the feedback so that future meetings are even better.
  18. The meeting ends on time.
  19. A summary of the meeting, clearly noting key insights, actions, decisions and communications is sent to all participants (and any stakeholders) very shortly after the meeting.  
  20. There is a follow-through mechanism to ensure all action items are completed.

This is my own personal list, heavily influenced by experts on collaboration including Sam Kaner, Michael Wilkinson and Jean Tabaka.

You’re probably thinking, “that’s quite a list! How can we execute all of those for every meeting?” However, if you look carefully at the list you will realize that many of these items take little or no time once instituted. For example, number 13 deals with engagement and trust. This is really about the cultural conditions of your organization rather than a meeting process, though you can take action within meetings to improve this. The point is, when an organization is fully set up to collaborate well, this list is manageable.

Scoring Your Meeting Effectiveness

We can use the list above to evaluate the likely effectiveness of our meetings. You can run through it mentally for your favorite meeting. If you wanted to evaluate your organization, you could have an independent observer evaluate a sample of meetings over a short period of time.

To score yourself using this checklist, start at 100 (a perfectly effective meeting) and subtract 10 points for each item that is not true of your meetings.

Wait, what?  That means that meetings could have a negative effectiveness score? YES! How can that be? Even the worst meeting gets something done, right?

Destructive Meetings

You’ve probably noticed that productive, driven people tend to dislike meetings. In fact, if you spend a little time reading blog posts about meetings you’ll realize there’s a lot of “meeting hate” out there. This is because people rightly intuit that ineffective, poorly run meetings actually have a net-negative effect. They make organizations and outcomes WORSE.

I won’t attempt an exhaustive list, but here are some of the more destructive effects that really bad meetings have:

  • Interrupt everyone’s workflow
  • Lower morale and employee engagement
  • Decrease trust
  • Obfuscate and dissolve responsibility
  • Prolong decision and action cycles
  • Decrease alignment
  • Generate resentment and conflict, particularly towards management
  • Increase re-work and re-meeting
  • Become a hiding place for highly ineffective and unproductive managers

If your organization is habitually running highly ineffective meetings, it is a fair bet that you’re doing more damage than good. In a way, meetings (good or bad) are keystone for our organizations and reflect the overall momentum and performance of those organizations. Really bad meetings perpetuate a negative spiral that eventually damages the organization.

I know and have worked with more than a few organizations that were “below 0” in their meeting effectiveness. These organizations tend to look the same: managers are running from meeting to meeting, constantly late, frustrated and burned out, fighting fires and treading water. There is no energy or forward momentum. Meeting attendees are cynical, resentful and passive.

Thankfully that doesn’t describe most of us. Most of us are “doing okay”. An “okay” organization probably hits about 0 to 50% effectiveness. That is, meetings are getting something done. But they still don’t feel like the focused, engaging, highly-productive collaboration that they should.

The Way Out

We can quibble about percentages and effectiveness measures. Don’t get hung up on the numbers. The point is that meetings are one of the most impactful, expensive and time-consuming activities we do in our organizations. If we get them wrong, the impacts are extraordinary. It’s foolish to leave that to chance. We should have a plan.

The way out is to make meetings and collaboration a real priority. Collaboration is not “just talking about things.” It is actually a difficult skill that most of us have not developed.

I think the way out of the trap is twofold.

First, every organization should provide some training on how to collaborate and meet effectively. Given how much we meet, this may be one of the single most important skills our people possess.  

Second, organizations should adopt a set of meeting practices that are used for all meetings. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – in fact, the simpler the better. If it is simple, it is more likely to be used.

Instant Agenda is a product designed to make this second step as automatic as possible. It helps everyone in your organization consistently implement great meeting practices without having to think about it. And if you compare the outcome to the cost, we think it more than pays for itself in about one single meeting.

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Michael Ball

Co-founder, Product Lead at Instant Agenda
Michael was born a squalling, helpless MVP and has struggled ever since to obtain product-market fit. Experiments have included Peace Corps volunteer, ops engineer, scrum master, product owner, agile coach, husband, father, armchair philosopher, and, most recently, lean startup founder. Michael is still working on his exit-strategy, but his earliest angel investors seem generally proud of his accomplishments.
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