Skip to content
All posts

One Trick Pony? Stop and Ask “Do We Really Need a Meeting?”

If you’re constantly trying to shoehorn essential tasks, deep thinking time, and your “real work” between meetings, it’s only fair to ask “do we really need a meeting” every time you’re invited to one.

Graphic Showing Lady Asking QuestionOftentimes, lots of people are wondering but most won’t directly ask this critical question. That’s why so many meeting proceed without purpose. The reflexive response to any issue is to call a meeting. The pervasive pattern is to put placeholders in the calendar, with or without clear objectives for those meetings. In a misguided attempt to be efficient, meetings are used in place of emails and other forms of communication.   

Maybe that’s why humorist Dave Barry wrote “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.’”

To become more effective with your meetings, stop and ask “do we really need a meeting?” before scheduling one. 

Perception vs. Reality: Do We Really Need a Meeting? VS. Do People See the Need for a Meeting? 

The Reality: Be honest with yourself. Why do you want to call a meeting? 

If any of these “reasons” come to mind, you probably don’t need a meeting:

  • We always have one at this time of day, day of week, etc. 
  • It’s been a long time since we met.
  • It would be nice to get together as a team.
  • I’m important and important people call meetings.
  • I have information to share.
  • I want to be sure people are ready to work at the start of the day.
  • I want to be sure people are sticking around ‘til the end of the day.
  • I need to hear from everyone about what’s going on. 
  • I’ve already made a decision, but I’ll hear others’ opinions before I share my decision.
  • I’d rather meet than craft an email or other communication. 

If you’re meeting for routine’s sake, informal gatherings, ego strokes, one-way communication, micro-managing, updates that could be independently give, de rigueur but inauthentic dialogue, or laziness in approach, STOP. 

Meetings are essential when:

  • There’s a clear objective and purpose for the meeting.
  • No other solution would be appropriate or as effective. 
  • Critical information needs to be shared in a forum where all hear it simultaneously. 
  • Discussion is needed with input from all BEFORE a decision is made and the action plan is devised. 
  • Members of the group need to hear updates/questions from each other in order to proceed with their own work.
  • Brainstorming and idea generation is needed to solve a shared problem. 
  • Strategic planning requires consideration of impacts across functions and job roles so input from all attending the meeting is essential for understanding those impacts. 
  • Shared learning and discovery is needed following a shared experience (good or bad).
  • Implementation of change, continual process improvement, and synchronicity of work is improved by discussion of actual performance and gaps. 
  • There’s a need for breaking down silos, creating cross-functional understanding, or coming together for training/development that benefits all. 

Group meetings are not the only option
for disseminating information, checking in on individual progress, creating collegiality, managing performance, getting input, and keeping projects on track.   

Instead of being a “one-trick pony” and over-relying on meetings, it’s important to become well-versed in the art of communication. It’s also essential to set expectations and let people know when and how information will be conveyed. 

Here’s a classic example of what happens. In one organization of 2,000 employees, mid-level and senior managers attend back-to-back meetings all week long because they believe that’s the only way to stay visible and informed. Some spend more than 40 hours per week in meetings. In this same organization, when asked why there are so many meetings, executive team members report that no one reads emails so they’re forced to hold more meetings. 

It's a catch-22. They don’t have time to read emails because they’re in meetings. They’re in more meetings because they don’t read emails. Solving this problem requires someone saying “Enough!” and setting expectations and accountabilities for people to communicate in other ways (fewer meetings) and to read emails from others (more time to do so with fewer meetings). 

Emails aren’t the only alternative to meetings. 

Interpersonal engagement on a 1-to-1 basis or in small groups is often more effective in gathering information, checking progress, and getting action items completed. Picking up the phone, chatting on Teams or Slack, connecting via Zoom, a quick confirmation via text, stopping by a colleague’s cubicle, or grabbing coffee while discussing an issue are all viable alternatives to full-group meetings. Project management trackers, updating documents in a shared drive, or entrusting others are also good alternative for some meetings.  

When meetings have a clear and stated purpose, they are more productive. Instead of being time-wasting, soul-sucking, and dreaded, meetings become a forum for engagement, idea exchange, problem-solving, decision-making, and collaboration. Fewer and better defined meetings make the difference. 

The Perception: In addition to considering whether or not a meeting is really needed, take into account how others will view the meeting. If they don’t see the need, their response may be the very thing that precludes getting the need met. 

“Employees negative dispositions toward meetings can negatively influence their perceptions of their work, well-being, and organizations’ bottom lines.” (Meaningful Meetings, Allen, Rogelberg, Scott)

According to researchers, these negative perceptions stem from the fact that “meetings can serve to derail individual and organizational effectiveness and well-being by demanding too much of an employee’s time, sometimes for little or no benefit.” (The Association for Psychological Science, The Science of Workplace Meetings)

Outcome-based meetings define the benefit and justify the time requested. They provide the WHY, the context, and the motivation to attend and participate. When the purpose of the meeting is vague or is a mystery, participants have negative sentiments right from the start when the meeting invitation shows up on their calendar. 

In 1986, meeting researchers defined business meetings as gatherings where people make decisions, discuss a problem, or search for solutions. By 2015, even researchers viewed meetings differently. They are now defining meetings as “any prescheduled, work-focused gathering of at least two people.” In other words, even in academic study, the purpose of meetings has been stripped away. 

No matter how good your meeting will be, you face an uphill battle due to largely negative perceptions about meetings. To change perception before the meeting, you’ll have to help others understand the need for the meeting and the purpose of the meeting. Don’t assume this is evident! Make it clear in the meeting invitation, on the agenda, in the opening, and throughout the meeting. 

Replace “Do We Really Need a Meeting?” with “What Do We Need from a Meeting?”

You can pose the question two ways: “Do we really need a meeting?” reminds you to consider alternatives for communication. "What are the potential (but realistic!) consequences if we don’t meet?” surfaces the concerns so you can weigh them against the real costs of meetings

If you decide that a meeting is needed, the very next question should be “What do we need from this meeting?”

This question keeps you on track for predetermining the objective for the meeting and your desired outcome. With an outcome-based meeting, the focus is on your desired outcome and not on the meeting itself. For there, clarity is ensured. People will be more likely to enter the meeting with a positive perception. You’ll be much more likely to accomplish what you set out to with less wasted time. 

Try to focus narrowly on what you need from a meeting. Jampacking an agenda with discussion items, decision points, training, cascading communication, and updates is too much. Our brains don’t recalibrate readily as we attempt to move from one modality to the next (even if we receive the agenda in advance). 

Consider what’s most important and most urgent. Make that the focus of the meeting. Look for ways to declutter the meeting by using other communication tools and forums. Be sure to include the people who are directly involved and impacted by the meeting’s main topic. And be sure not to include the people who are not directly involved and impacted. Be respectful of other’s time when you select attendees for each meeting. 

Here's an example. If you call a meeting to discuss a pending software change, your stated objective is not very clear. Participants can interpret the meeting’s purpose in these ways (and more!): 

  • Articulate problems with the existing software
  • Advocate to keep the software and avoid a change
  • Compare options for the new software 
  • Make a decision on the software to be selected
  • Create a training and implementation plan
  • Appoint a task force to review issues and opportunities with the software change
  • Determine what budget cuts will be needed to reallocate funds for the new software
  • Select “power users” and “early adopters” for the new software to champion the change
  • Discuss other software problems and look longer term at a holistic solution
  • Determine who favors and who opposes this change to take a vote on moving forward 

All 10 reasons require different mental preparation, different people in the meeting, and different time frames for how long to meet and what to do during the meeting. Without clarity, assumptions will be made. People will come in with their own agenda. 

It’s far better to convey what the purpose of the meeting is. Those 10 interpretations are narrow examples of ways to communicate, in advance, the desired outcome of the meeting. Knowing this will get the right people into the meeting. They’ll come in better prepared and more focused. You’re much more likely to get something done!

Asking both questions, routinely, will keep you from having unnecessary meetings. You’ll also get positive and productive engagement in your meetings. 

CTA_Logo_PFPS  - Main Page_031323