Nobody likes bad meetings, but we all take part in them. You’ve probably been to a bad meeting this week. You may have even called a bad meeting this week.
Bad meetings cost us time, they cost us goodwill, but they also cost money—a lot of it. If it was possible to make a case for spending less time in boring, productivity killing meetings, would you be interested in learning how?
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- What makes bad meetings so frustratingly wasteful
- Why we find ourselves in bad meetings so often
- How to quantify meeting quality (and avoid bad meetings)
We’ll break all that down into a simple strategy you can use to measure and improve the value of your meetings while spending less time in bad meetings.
What makes a bad meeting so… bad?
Let’s talk about what makes a meeting “bad” in the first place because meetings themselves aren’t inherently bad. Meetings can be important, engaging, crucial, or all of the above. The relative ‘goodness’ of a meeting boils usually down to context, time/timeliness, organization, and subjective taste.
Context: Meetings hinge on context, and that context in turn relies on multiple factors lining up:
- Audience: Who joins (and equally important, who doesn’t join) a meeting is intimately related to its context.
- Topic: The topic of the meeting and its audience inform one another. When these two factors aren’t aligned, there’s a good chance you’re calling a bad meeting.
Time/timeliness: Time and timeliness are both major factors in how good or bad a meeting is. A meeting called right before (or during) lunchtime is likely to earn you some notches toward ‘bad meeting.’
A meeting that should have been a half hour, but drags out to an hour and a half? Unless you’re discussing some really exciting topics, that’s probably a bad meeting.
Timeliness is equally important. If you’re discussing something that nobody needs to think about until far into the future, or worse, discussing something important last-minute, expect a few more notices toward ‘bad meeting.’
Organization: Poorly organized meetings can leave you frustrated, inconvenienced as an attendee, and maybe even a bit embarrassed as a presenter.
Subjective taste: Part of what makes determining something like meeting quality difficult is the inherent subjectivity. One person’s “great meeting” could just as easily be another person’s “oppressive time-waster.”
Why are we attending (and calling) so many bad meetings?
Calling and attending meetings is easier than it has ever been, and that may be part of the problem. Meeting and collaborating instantly with colleagues across the world is commonplace. But just because it’s simple to organize a meeting doesn’t mean you should have one.
Remote work and play
With so many people forced to connect with friends and family through video meetings, we’re having a lot more meetings outside of work, too. An increase in meetings across the board makes it easier to become fatigued by the thought of firing up another video chat. Because of this, it’s become even more important to make sure the meetings we have during our workdays are the best they can be.
Advances in productivity tools mean we can put a lot of things on autopilot. Autopilot is great—it simplifies processes and frees up bandwidth to think about more complicated tasks. While no autopilot is perfect, autopilot is getting smarter.
Booking meetings with people outside your organization used to be a multi-step process (and still is in many organizations).
- Both people confirm they’d like to meet.
- Person A sends some times they have available.
- Person B confirms one of those times works for them, too.
- Person A sends a calendar invite for one of those times.
- Person B accepts.
- A+B meet.
That six-step process is the best-case scenario. Person B might not have any times available within the range Person A sent, so steps 2-3 might repeat multiple times. Bring additional parties into the mix, and suddenly the complexity of steps two and three compounds.
Tools like Calendly make it easy to skip multiple steps in the meeting scheduling dance by making it quick and simple to book through a shared calendar. That’s fantastic because the rigamarole around getting a meeting scheduled doesn’t benefit anyone.
Tools like Clockwise help people schedule internal meetings without cutting into that crucial uninterrupted productivity time. Clockwise automatically protects things like lunchtime and focus time, and finds the least disruptive time for teammates to schedule a meeting. That’s incredibly useful functionality.
Now, here’s where it starts to break down. Scheduling tools can reduce the busywork required to get a meeting scheduled, and they can even help reduce the impact of meetings on your schedule. Scheduling tools, as brilliant as they can be, can’t protect you from an errant meeting request or a crucial meeting run poorly. Even if the productivity impact of that meeting time is minimized to the greatest possible extent, if it’s a bad meeting, it’s still a waste.
While autopilot is a valuable way to take a bite out of the inefficiencies of booking a meeting, it’s not a panacea. The next step toward freeing yourself from bad meetings is to grab the wheel and get more thoughtful about when and why you accept and send meeting invitations.
Mindless Accept Syndrome (MAS)
David Grady’s brilliant TED Talk on saving the world (or at least yourself) from bad meetings addresses a key factor in our bad meeting culture. He calls it Mindless Accept Syndrome (MAS).
If you recognize some signs of MAS in your daily schedule, consider taking Grady’s advice. Unless the host shares an agenda, or you already know exactly why your presence is valuable in that meeting, don’t accept right away. Instead:
- Respond with a maybe, rather than accepting or declining immediately.
- Ask the organizer how you can add value to the group.
Doing just these two things can help reduce the number of unnecessary meetings on your calendar, but it’s only half of the equation.
Mindless Invite Syndrome (MIS)
We don’t just mindlessly accept meeting invites. We often send meeting invites with the same level of thought. Many times, as organizers we invite others to meetings simply because they have the opportunity to take part in the discussion. After all, it doesn’t cost anything to add someone to the guest list, and they don’t have to come if they’re busy, right?
Well, no. A direct invitation carries the implicit assumption the invitee is needed, even if their presence isn’t crucial. Over-inviting meeting attendees can cost goodwill among colleagues. Invitees feel obligated to show up, then find out a quick Slack or Teams message or a simple recap could have sufficed.
To be the meeting hero your colleagues deserve, consider combining Grady’s No-MAS strategy with a Can’t-MIS strategy.
Before inviting someone to a meeting:
- Put together a basic agenda for every meeting you call. It doesn’t have to be perfect—even a five-minute effort in this area can make all the difference.
- Think of the No-MAS strategy: what your answer would be if they asked how they could add value? If you can’t come up with a compelling answer, skip the invite, and send a recap.
- Unless someone’s attendance is instrumental to the meeting’s success, default to ‘optional’ invites.
Quantifying meeting quality
While there will always be an element of meeting quality that is subjective, you can still take that subjective opinion, quantify it, calculate it, and even plot it. All you need to do is follow your meetings with a simple question:
“How would you rate the value you personally gained from this meeting?”
Depending on cultural norms on your team, you may or may not get candid responses. Most people don’t want to hurt others’ feelings, and for that reason, their answer might not reflect the experience.
Providing a barrier of anonymity can help make it easier for attendees to answer truthfully. Although it might sting a bit to hear your meeting attendees didn’t find the time they spent valuable, that information is crucial for improving your next meeting.
Since attendees have already dedicated time to the meeting, the easier you can make answering this question, the better. For example, phrase this question as a 1-10 range with the option to elaborate.
With 1 being a total waste of my time and 10 being an extremely valuable use of my time, I would rate this meeting 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10.
Optional: what would have made this meeting more valuable?
Calculating the exact financial cost of a meeting
If you want to know exactly how much a meeting costs in hard currency, that’s simple. Just find the sum of the wages of each attendee, then multiply it by the amount of time that meeting takes.
Break the salary of each attendee, broken down into minutes. So, for example, a person making $104,000 USD/year makes roughly $50USD/hour, or about .$83/minute. That per-minute figure is what you’ll use to find the meeting’s cost.
Multiply the per-minute figure by the number of minutes in a meeting.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume each attendee is making the same salary, and there are only five attendees in a one-hour meeting.
(.83 * 60) * 5 = $249
That single huddle cost around $250.
Not a fan of doing math? The Harvard Business Review shared this handy calculator so you don't have to.
Hidden costs of a bad meeting
While it’s easy to calculate the cost of a meeting in hard currency, there are other costs that aren’t as clear, but just as real.
Task switching: A meeting might be scheduled for an hour, but its impact on productivity is greater than that. Gathering attendees into a venue takes time, and it takes an equal amount of time for everyone to get back to their space.
Even to attend a remote meeting, you have to put away whatever you’re working on, attend, then find where you left off. The cognitive load associated with task switching is greater than most people realize. Though many people consider themselves great multitaskers, they’re almost universally overestimating their abilities.
Opportunity cost: The opportunity cost of a bad meeting is any progress that would have been made elsewhere. The cost could be a bug fix, an email to a client, or any number of things. It’s difficult to gauge the extent of this cost, but with each attendee, the cost rises.
Goodwill: Frustrating colleagues with meetings that directly impact their ability to get work done but don’t support any progress or growth won’t earn their favor. Calling enough bad meetings can lead to a decrease in the perceived value of future meetings—even if they’re objectively better than before.
Before accepting that next invite (or sending that next invitation)
Use the point range we discussed to make your own estimate of meeting value first. Once the meeting concludes, compare your estimated value with the value the attendees give for the meeting.
How close was your estimation of value to theirs?
Tuning your intuition here can help reduce the number of bad meetings you call, which can save you time, save time for your colleagues, and help build a better work experience for everyone around you.
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How about you?
Do you have any tips for reducing the number of bad meetings you attend that we didn’t cover here? What are some other hidden costs of bad meetings you’ve experienced? Let us know all about it @polly_ai!
Written by George Dickson
Lives to learn and build cool things with good people.