30 July 2014

How to Spot a Waste-of-Time Meeting

Peter Drucker was a genius. And he should have been made an honorary sergeant major in charge of the Army Meeting Command.

But it would have been a boring gig, since he likely would have abolished most meetings. I had read a long time ago that Drucker, who preached efficiency by bucking conventional wisdom, believed meetings to be a sign of organizational dysfunction.

But are they? I did a little reading up on the matter. Turns out that meetings get a bad name because there are so many bad meetings. But there are a few instances when it is appropriate to hold meetings.

He categorized meetings thusly:
  • A meeting to prepare a statement, an announcement, or a press release.
  • A meeting to make an announcement—for example, an organizational change.
  • A meeting in which one member reports.
  • A meeting in which several or all members report.
  • A meeting to inform the convening executive.
  • A meeting whose only function is to allow the participants to be in the executive’s presence. 
Of this last kind, the management guru said, "there is no way to make these meetings productive. They are the penalties of rank.” We wouldn't know anything about that in the Army.

You see, Drucker's concern was productivity, which always comes down to cost analysis. In the Army we are subject to many meetings, but they aren't inherently bad if they are productive, and don't detract from otherwise productive work. 

A few things will harm productivity:
  • Convening a meeting in the middle of the work day without fair notice.
  • Failing to provide a written agenda
  • Letting discussions wander into unplanned realms
  • Failing to follow up on agreements made
Finally, the maxim that meetings are a symptom of organizational dysfunction isn't an indictment against meetings, but rather one against dysfunction! Nobody cures poor eyesight by swearing off spectacles.

I view bad meetings as a symptom of poor organization, in the same way that an excess of meetings indicates poor organization. As ironic as it is, though, we might need to hold a brief meeting to fix all those problems. 


  1. I always liked this one from the Dave Barry "Top Things I've Learned" list:
    #2: If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'

    By the way, the #1 on that list: Never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.