How to save ourselves from unproductive meetings

Recently, I was sitting with my friends in a restaurant and we were having a short discussion about our work. My friends complained a lot about their calendars being crammed with meetings. Their participation in these meetings consumed a vast amount of their time, and consequently they had to take care of important work-related issues after working hours at home instead of spending time with their families.

I thought that this was really madness and I realized for sure that this was not the first time that I had heard someone complaining about unproductive and time-consuming meetings. This however will not surprise us if we take a look at the research. According to a Wolf Management Consultants survey, approximately 11 million meetings occur in the U.S. each and every day. Correspondingly, each employee loses 31 hours per month in unproductive meetings. It is roughly 48 work days (2 months) a year!

Unproductive meetings, weekly status meetings which do not bring any value, and endless discussions with digressions that do not address crucial topics are the nightmares of many companies and their employees.

So, why is it so difficult to deal with unproductive meetings?

Meetings can be divided into two separate groups:

  • organized by others,
  • organized by ourselves.

For both these types of gatherings we can apply various improvement methods.

Recently, I saw an inspiring TED Talk by David Grady about meetings organized by others which says that a virus is spreading throughout our offices called: Mindless Accept Syndrome (MAS). This virus forces us to accept any invitation to a meeting the minute it pops up in our calendar. No matter how full our calendar is with different meetings, we immediately accept the next one even though it has a barely defined title, no agenda and an unknown purpose.

David Grady suggests marking these poorly defined meetings as tentative, and in the meantime asking the inviter about the goal and plan for the meeting. I believe that this a great method and that it is usually highly effective, but it requires us to be consistent, and with some invitations it might not work.

I remember once when the employees calendar showed invitation for a meeting that was scheduled for the next day. The invitation contained only the title “meeting, was sent by one of top managers and had the names of the more than 100 people who were invited. We were a bit confused, because this appointment was scheduled at the same time that other important meetings were supposed to take place (for some we had waited even a couple of weeks).

Normally we would decline to attend the meeting, but this time the importance of person who invited us somehow stopped us from doing that. One of our colleagues courageously decided to ask the organizer of the meeting what the purpose and agenda of the meeting was; he also described the doubts that had arisen after receiving the invitation in our team.

The response came very quickly and was very brief: “You are brave to ask such a question; you will find out what it is about at the meeting.” When my friend read the answer to us, our faces expressed disbelief (I guess the attitude of the top managers towards the employees is a great topic for whole separate post). We were very disappointed and had to change our plans. It goes without saying that our attitude towards meeting as well as our manager was highly negative. After we participated in the meeting, it was obvious to all of us that it was simply a waste of time.

Dilber - Effective Meetings

Even though I still receive invitations for meetings without an agenda and a defined purpose, I still think that there is no alternative to assertively inquiring about the goal and requiring from the planners more specificity about the reason for the meeting.

Of course, it is far easier when this positive example and attitude comes from the management, but still even without support from executives you can give others a good example and slowly but consistently change their approach.

So, before I accept any invitation for a meeting, I answer a couple of helpful questions, which I treat as a checklist:

  • Why am I invited?
  • What is the purpose of this meeting and do I understand it?
  • Do I really have the knowledge that is needed to achieve the goal of the meeting?
  • What kind of outcome do we expect from this particular meeting?
  • What is the plan for the meeting and how are we going to achieve the main objective of the meeting?
  • Will I regret going to this meeting?

Furthermore, I use these questions also during the process of scheduling meetings that I organize myself. Generally, I always try to put myself in the place of the person that I invite to the meeting and make sure that when I look at the invitation from his or her perspective I know the answers for all the above mentioned questions. The Golden Rule that one should treat others as one would like others to treat them perfectly fits this situation.

How to organize a “perfect” meeting in less than 10 minutes

Before I start planning any meeting, I make sure that calling a new meeting is absolutely necessary. If I can’t deal with a problem on my own or by talking directly to the person that might be able to resolve the issue, I decide what sort of meeting I need to schedule. Usually I create one of two types of meetings: formal or more informal ones.

Generally, I prefer informal meetings the great advantage of which is efficiency. Informal meetings usually are not planned in advance, but usually they are driven by a necessity that appeared suddenly and can be fixed quickly. These meetings have also a limited number of participants (preferably 2-3, but maximum 4-5) and what is best about them is that during such a meeting we can solve the problem right away.

These meetings are often conducted at someone’s desk, and the outcome of such a meeting can be a task in our task management software, or simply an email that sums up what we have discussed.

Unfortunately, not every meeting with every person in a corporation can be organized this way. Meetings that need to be planned in advance such as workshops, or that need to involve more people from different locations, or simply that need much more preparation fall into the second category of meetings: the formal ones.

Preparation for formal meetings can be divided into two simple but essential steps:

  • writing and sending an invitation,
  • preparation before and moderation during the meeting.

Writing and sending an invitation

The first thing that I do when I create a new meeting is to write down a sentence which contains the purpose of the meeting. When something is written down, it clears your mind and it is much easier to concentrate on the next steps.

Then, I identify and add an expected outcome to the invitation. I focus on specifying what I want to accomplish, what the possible results of the meeting are: e.g. decision, agreement on a particular solution or simply a list of collected ideas which define how to solve a problem.

In the next step, I create an agenda, or in other words a proposition of topics arranged in order that will be discussed during the meeting. This step, when it is done carefully can be a big help during the moderation of the meeting. If it is possible I attach materials that can accelerate the discussion or even ask for preparation in advance of some materials as input into the discussion.

Finally, I choose people that are crucial for the meeting. The rule is simple: the fewer people that are invited, the better results will be. The key is in identifying the right people for the solution of the problem. Unnecessary people who are not directly concerned with the topic of the meeting usually involve themselves in different activities that disturb others and prevent them from focusing attention on the topic.

4 steps To Effective Meeting

These four simple steps usually take less than a couple of minutes and might save a lot of time for other co-workers.

Preparations before and moderation during the meeting

Before the meeting, based on the agenda that I have sent in the invitation, I create a more detailed plan that will be a big help during the moderation of the meeting. In fact, sometimes even a few slides of a presentation with empty fields to fill in during the meeting might help everyone to focus on the ultimate goal of the gathering.

A rule which is worth remembering is:

[Tweet “The better you will be prepared for the meeting, the better outcome you will have from the meeting.”]

During the meeting, I keep in mind that the main reason for the meeting is an issue that I cannot resolve by myself. So, people who are invited should do most of the talking. I focus my efforts on moderating the discussion, making sure that we stick to the plan and that we are getting closer to the expected results.

When the discussion gets stuck in one place and we are not getting any closer to a solution, I shelve the topic and move on with the meeting. Usually, the reason that we cannot resolve the issue is missing data or that this particular team does not have the required knowledge, or we are not able to come to a decision. These shelved topics are addressed accordingly after the meeting.

Sometimes, it is extremely hard to identify such time-consuming digressions, but when we have this in mind all the time, the question: “Does this particular discussion bring us any closer to the result?” it is much easier to spot the digression and interrupt the discussion, and come back to the main topic.

During the meeting, and particularly at the end of the meeting, we plan the next steps that are needed to be taken in order to solve the problem. Every action point has an allocated person who will be responsible for the task, and an estimated time when the task should be completed.

At the end, I collect all our findings from the meeting into one email and send them to all the participants and other interested people that might need the results of the meeting to complete their jobs.

The rest of the actions are dependent on the topic and the result of the meeting.


These simple steps that increase the possibility of conducting an effective meeting might seem obvious to some people; unfortunately, they are rarely applied in practice by employees no matter which level of the organization they work on.

Maybe these rules are so simple and obvious that we easily overlook them, or paradoxically, we don’t have the time to properly plan our meetings or think about declining invitations to them, because we are so occupied by other meetings.

No matter what the reasons are that why we do not apply these rules, the statistics are striking:

[Tweet “Each year we waste 2 months on unproductive meetings; in 40 years that is 7 yrs down the drain! “]

Think about all the things that you could do during this time… Is it still worth accepting an invitation to another meeting?

If you would like to define goals and actions that you could be focusing on instead of wasting your time on unproductive meetings, please visit our website:



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