My previous column "Elon Musk's Management Advice Is So Brilliant That I Threw Away 37 Business Books" contained some excellent advice for avoiding unnecessary meetings. Of course, that kind of advice is hardly anything new. Efficiency experts and management pundits have been railing for decades that companies have way way too many meetings."
Now, ya'd think, wouldn't ya, that with all that attention and complaining that the number of corporate meetings would be going down year to year. But ya'd think wrong. Dead wrong. According to a study at the University of North Carolina, an average executive spends twice as much time in meetings (a whopping 23 hours a week) as they did in the 1960s.
So what gives? Why so many damn meetings? Well, a certain number of meetings are probably necessary to keep people informed and so forth, but a LOT of meetings (especially the useless ones) are called and attended for any one of these really kinda stupid but all-too-common reasons:
1. To show dominance.
Nothing proves the boss is top dog better than forcing everyone to attend a meeting, especially when the boss is purposefully late, so that everyone has to wait until he arrives before they can actually start the meeting.
2. To avoid working.
Attending a meetings makes it look like you're working, even when you're just warming a seat. I knew a guy who got himself invited to as meetings as possible because he thought made him look like a player. He was, seriously, like the corporate Zelig.
3. Because of routine.
Communications are good, right? So having a regular meeting in which people can communicate is a good thing, right? So let's be good employees and hold a regular meeting every week, even if there's really nothing worth discussing.
4. Out of pure desperation.
"Uh-oh. There's a huge problem! We must do something!! A meeting is something, therefore we must do it. So schedule the meeting, already! Whew. Now we can relax because we're doing something, right?"
5. To capture turf.
Example: the manager of marketing group "A" wants to capture marketing group "B" (or just their budget) so she calls a meeting to discuss the company's overall marketing strategy. If B doesn't object, A is now positioned to capture B's mandate.
6. To defend turf.
Take the "capture turf" example above. If B doesn't want A to end up with its mandate, B must definitely send a delegation to A's strategy meeting with instructions to bog things down and keep the status quo in place.
7. To deflect lousy assignments.
If you don't attend every meeting, you're taking the risk that other attendees might reach consensus that you should be assigned the donkey-work that nobody else wants to do. Everyone else attends for the same reason.
8. To create social interaction.
I have seen engineering groups (mostly male) call for status update meetings (or whatever) with the marketing group (mostly female) simply to create occassions to hamhandedly flirt with them. Pitiful but true.
9. For group writing.
Getting everyone together in a room to "craft a message" shares the success ("I helped write a press release!") and dilutes the blame ("Everyone contributed so it's my fault the press release didn't generate any press".)
10. To create an illusion of inclusion.
Nothing says "we respect all opinions, even those of minorities and women" by periodically having "input gathering" meetings that have absolutely zero effect on the eventual decision-making.
11. To delay a decision.
A common way to block a decision that you don't like (like one made by a rival), you call a meeting to "reach consensus" before the decision is implemented. The meeting goes on and on because the point is to block the decision.
Here's the thing: all the reasons above are all-too-human and, while I think a good manager might be able to prevent some of them, it's probably going to be a case of whack-a-mole. Sad but true, I'm afraid.