Why Most Meetings Are a Waste of Time, and What to Do About It

Last Updated Aug 18, 2011 12:35 PM EDT

In theory, meetings are a wonderful tool. You get together with your colleagues, spitball ideas, pin down agendas, and have some quality face-to-face interactions. They're as much an opportunity to get work done as to team build. But in reality, they can be a colossal waste of time where mostly what you do is daydream about what you're going to have for lunch.

Former Ernst & Young employee Al Pittampalli certainly felt that way -- so much so that he decided to write a book about it, the new Read This Before Our Next Meeting. I talked to him recently about meetings -- why they're bad for business and how to make your meetings more meaningful.

When did you start to hate meetings?
I used to work as an IT advisor for Ernst & Young. I would spend most of my day attending the meetings of Fortune 500 companies all across the country and it was horrific. An overwhelming majority of the meetings were pointless, mind numbing, and soul draining. I became obsessed with the questions: Why were so many organizations having mediocre meetings all day every day, and how can we fix it? When I found out the answer, I knew I had to write a book about it.

So what's the answer? Why do so many organizations struggle with meaningless meetings?
There's a dirty little secret about meetings, and that's this: They've become the default stalling tactic for important decisions. One meeting turns into many meetings. And the person calling the meetings looks productive while doing it. It's the perfect crime!

What are the worst meetings of all?
Informational meetings -- meetings where the sole purpose is to herd people into a room and force feed them information. There were several occasions in my past where a meeting was so long and so boring, I just had to walk out.

How can managers make meetings more productive?
Make a decision before you schedule a meeting. Then if necessary, hold a meeting as a forum to debate that decision. [Then], invite fewer people. [Finally] try recording a brief video memo 10 minutes long that discusses the background for the issue, and assigns homework for people to do beforehand.

Are there any meetings that should never be called?
Yes. Cancel the regular status meetings. They're like vacuums. Even if there is nothing to discuss, people will invent things just to fill the time.

What can every employee do to make meetings more productive?
Come impeccably prepared. Quit the grandstanding, the blame, the diversions. And speak up. Meetings are the forum for conflict. Don't be shy if you have a concern or an objection.

Has technology worsened our meeting addiction?
Now with the omnipresence of webcam and new video conferencing tools you can have a meeting with a click of the mouse without even moving from your desk. Meetings are a weapon of mass interruption.

But can technology also help tame the meeting monster?
Yes. Let's be more innovative and start using recorded video and audio to record information and send it to people so they can consume it on their own time.

Do you love or hate meetings? Please share your experience in the comments section below.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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