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Five steps to escaping the meeting trap

Tom Phillips

If you want to ensure your company’s meetings are not a waste of time, you must institute systemic change, write Leslie A Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley and Eunice Eun for Harvard Business Review.

Research shows that executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours per week in meetings. If your company’s meetings are badly run, that’s a lot of wasted time – and money.

Meetings have a bad reputation – and it’s well deserved.


US-based academics Leslie A Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley and Eunice Eun surveyed 182 senior managers working across various industries:

  • 65% said meetings kept them from completing their own work;
  • 71% said meetings were unproductive and inefficient;
  • 64% said meetings came at the expense of “deep thinking” (defined by Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task); and
  • 62% said meetings missed opportunities to bring the team closer together.

In another survey, only 17% of the almost 200 senior executives questioned by Perlow, Hadley and Eun reported that meetings were generally productive uses of group and individual time.


Fortunately, it is possible to change your company’s approach to meetings – if you tackle the problem as a team and follow these five steps:

1) Speak to your team. Every member of your team is affected by your company’s approach to meetings, so they should all be involved in tackling any problems. Use surveys or interviews to gather information on each individual’s attitude to meetings and the impact meetings have on both their productivity and how satisfied they are with their working life.

2) Analyse the problem together. Once you have spoken to everyone individually, bring your team together to discuss the problems that have been highlighted during those preliminary discussions. You can use neutral facilitators to ensure the discussion remains constructive, but do not delegate this analysis process to a third party. Every member of the team must understand the problems that need to be tackled and buy in to the process of tackling them.

Discussions Perlow, Hadley and Eun had with staff at a financial and regulatory consultancy, as part of their research into the way different companies approach meetings, revealed managers were arranging meetings without any regard for team members’ individual schedules. Staff were being left with no significant blocks of time (two to three hours) to dedicate to “deep thinking”.

3) Agree group solutions that benefit individuals. If each individual team member benefits from your team’s solutions to meetings problems, they will be more committed to them. One way of doing this is to introduce regular “meeting-free” periods during which team members can dedicate time to “deep thinking”.

You should also encourage team members to re-evalute meetings usually held during those periods. Did everyone required to attend those meetings need to be present? Were those meetings even necessary?

This approach worked for a technology consultancy with staff in the United States and India who were all required to attend a daily meeting. Due to the 12.5 hour time difference, the meeting took place early in the morning for some and late at night for others, and cut into team members’ personal time.

The solution: each team member was excused from the meeting for one day a week and the whole team was tasked with ensuring relevant information from missed meetings was passed on to their colleagues.

4) Set goals and monitor progress. The process of fixing your company’s approach to meetings will be a journey with many milestones and obstacles on the road to success. It is important that you set goals at the outset of your journey and regularly take stock of your progress. Successes should be celebrated and failures should be seen as opportunities to learn and correct your course.

A team of 30 staff working for a global e-commerce company complained that the use of phones and other technology during meetings was distracting attendees and forcing speakers to repeat themselves, making the meetings longer and less productive.

The solution – to ban phones and other technology from meetings – proved controversial, and took time for all team members to get used to. But regular progress checks inspired those who had accepted the tech ban to encourage their colleagues to get onboard, and no tech eventually became the norm. This hard-won success inspired the team to start tackling other problems.

5) Establish regular “pulse checks”. Change takes time, and sustaining momentum is vital. In order to do this, you must regularly check that every member of the team is committed to the process. One person feeling frustrated, resentful or worse could negate everyone’s hard work.

A pharmaceutical company introduced “pulse checks” to monitor the progress of an experiment with meeting-free days. Team members were regularly asked: “How are you feeling? How valuable are the ways in which you are spending your time? How well are you working as a team? Is this sustainable?”

Start with brief weekly check-ins, moving to every other week once your solutions take hold and become the norm. Make sure everybody has a way in which they can express frustrations whenever they surface.


Tackling your company’s approach to meetings can bring a host of other benefits. Communicating more openly and honestly allows everyone to better help one another .

Source Article: Stop The Meeting Madness
Author(s): Leslie A Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley and Eunice Eun