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Why Meetings Fail

By Rowena Crosbie

“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.”

From Sixteen Things That It Took Me 50 Years To Learn by Dave Barry

We’ve all been there - captive in a meeting that drags on seemingly forever and nothing is accomplished. What is the underlying cause of the meeting failure and how can it be solved?

Many meeting leaders are not equipped with the skills and knowledge to effectively facilitate a meeting. Similarly, many meeting participants contribute to the problem through their own ineffective meeting skills.

According to the Wharton Center for Applied Research at the University of Pennsylvania, the average senior executive spends 23 hours each week in meetings. Sadly, senior and middle managers report that a mere 56 percent of meetings are productive and that a phone call or email could replace more than 25 percent of meetings.

When the resources that are involved in meetings each day are considered alongside of the above statistics, the financial drain to organizations alone is devastating.

But unproductive meetings are not the province of executives and managers alone. Nearly everyone in a professional environment finds themselves, at some time, asked to participate or present in meetings. As careers advance, increased meeting participation (and eventually, meeting leadership) inevitably follows.

At all levels of organizations, individuals employ state-of-the-art process improvement methodologies to streamline activities and accomplish more with less. Curiously, and somewhat ironically, these same individuals who strive for maximum productivity in their work activities wrestle with frustration and set-backs caused by unproductive meetings.

Why are meetings unproductive?

1. Lack of Process and Protocol
They are not strategically valuable. There is limited or no progress against a goal.

2. Lack of Performance
They fail to bring out the best in the people who attend or those who are affected. Relationships are damaged or interpersonal friction is created.

Since meetings are a part of most corporate cultures and are simply viewed as part of business, many people don’t consider the cost of meetings. Interestingly, many people don’t even consider meetings to be part of work (some people will end a meeting by saying “let’s get back to work” implying that the meeting time was not work). Even less frequently is consideration given to the large advantage available to organizations that use meeting time wisely.

The Cost of Ineffective Meetings

When done poorly, meetings are one of the most common barriers to effectiveness in organizations. Done well, they can represent cost savings, higher performance and competitive advantage.

The investment in a training program to improve meeting effectiveness is dwarfed by the savings that are realized by more productive, effective and efficient meetings.

To calculate the cost of time wasted in ineffective meetings and the opportunity that can be realized by providing meeting training to meeting participants and leaders, do the following:

Estimate the amount of time that is wasted in meetings in an average week due to . . .

Meetings that run long or don’t start on time.
Meetings that stray away from the purpose.
Meeting participants arriving unprepared.
Meeting attendees spending time in meetings that do not require their involvement.
Meetings dominated by one or two individuals.
Conflict that disrupts meetings and damages relationships.
Little or no follow-up.

Use the following formula to calculate the annual cost to your organization caused by time wasted in meetings:
Time Wasted (hours per week)
Number of Meeting Participants
52 weeks
Average Hourly Wage
Estimated Annual Cost

When these factors are considered, the time and resources invested in improving the skills and knowledge of people in pursuit of meeting effectiveness is well worth the effort and investment.

Meeting Performance

“When people come together to work as a group, each brings certain talents such as high verbal fluency, creativity, empathy, or technical expertise. While a group can be no ‘smarter’ than the sum (or synergistic) total of all these specific strengths, it can be much dumber if its internal workings don’t allow people to share their talents.”

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 1995

Meeting difficulties are most commonly due in part or in whole to interpersonal friction. In his book, People Skills, author Dr. Robert Bolton reports a study in which it was found that 80% of people who fail professionally, do so not because they aren’t competent technically, but rather because they do not relate well with other people. He also maintains that people of all ages can learn skills that lead to improved interaction.

The following interpersonal skills are critical for effective meetings and can be learned:

Behaving ethically
Valuing others
Creatively addressing problems
Withholding judgment
Encouraging participation
Challenging ideas
Being flexible
Non-verbal communication
Resolving conflict
Reaching consensus

Meeting Progress

There are many things that contribute to a successful meeting. Planning starts well before the meeting begins and follow-up continues well after the meeting has concluded.

Effective meetings have the following characteristics:

Goals and purpose
Prepared attendees
Ground rules and protocol

Interestingly, meeting skills are some of the easiest changes to make in an organization. However, like most change, an investment of time in building new skills, challenging old habits and implementing new processes requires effort.

One way to improve meeting effectiveness is to help both participants and leaders alike understand how they can help make the meetings work better. With everyone sharing a common understanding and common knowledge, the result is meetings that are more valuable and productive.