There’s no such thing as the one-hour meeting Jason 30 Jun 2006

41 comments Latest by LT

It’s no mystery that we’re meeting averse, but here’s another reason why we think meetings are toxic: There’s no such thing as the one-hour meeting.

If you’re going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour and invite 10 people to attend then it’s a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting. You are trading 10 hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time. And it’s probably more like 15 hours since there are mental switching costs associated with stopping what you’re doing, going somewhere else to do something else, and then resuming what you were doing before.

Is it ever OK to trade 10-15 hours of productivity for one hour of meeting? Sometimes, sure, but it’s a heavy cost. Meetings are expensive when you think about the opportunity cost. On a pure cost basis, meetings can quickly become liabilities, not assets. So when you schedule that one-hour meeting for 10 people think about the 10-15 hours lost. Is it still worth it?

41 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Jan 30 Jun 06

So, it’s a really bad idea to get campfire because it destroys productivity? Well, if you say so.. :)

joe 30 Jun 06

So is it safe to say that the “small” theme works a lot of places? i.e. small decisions rather than month long handcuffs… Small conversation in small groups rather than hour long 10 person benders… Work takes communication, -but meetings are usually organized as a platform or personal agenda, rather than a discussion.

JF 30 Jun 06

So, it’s a really bad idea to get campfire because it destroys productivity? Well, if you say so.. :)

Passive meetings (Campfire, IM, email, Basecamp) are good things. You can ignore those. Active meetings such as actual in person meetings in a conference room are the bad ones.

Chris 30 Jun 06

Good post Jason.
I suppose you could have a 1 hour meeting with yourself if you were bi polar. But that’s taking it a bit far.

Chad Burt 30 Jun 06

I’d agree for one other reason.

If you really need to have a meeting, it will need to be longer than 1 hour.

A one hour gathering of 10 people is a presentation, not a meeting. Likely, one person has then spent hours upon hours trying to figure out what to cram into this hour long span.

Not that meetings are a bad thing. I really don’t understand all the meeting bashing going on around here. There is always going to be an impendance mismatch between people in an organization, and there needs to be time to sync up. This is especially true of traditional websites where there are many different interests involved.

I suppose it all depends on what kind of project you are working on.

josh susser 30 Jun 06

I had a PHB years ago who was so worried about lost productivity due to time wasted in meetings that he asked me to write a program that would show the actual cost of a meeting. It was supposed to know everyone’s hourly rate (calculated from our annual salaries plus overhead), and allow him to check off who was attending the meeting. His dream was to see a ticker showing how many dollars a 30-second joke would cost to tell. I’m not sure if he was planning on docking pay for non-productive use of time, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

Of course, he could have just skipped the meetings entirely, but I guess that never occurred to him.

Chris 30 Jun 06

On the flip side, a meeting that is used for brainstorming, passing information, etc.. could be seen a hugely productive. You are getting 10 man hours of focused thinking in just one small hour out of the day. If you were to try and do that yourself, well…10 hours later, you would be done. :)

Baeck 30 Jun 06

I think the point here is not to come off as totally anti-meeting, but to get everyone to step back and think “Is this really necessary?” before scheduling a meeting. Far too often, people will schedule a meeting for a purpose that could just as easily be handled electronically or in a drop-by conversation.

Plus, when you schedule a meeting for an hour, even if the topic is covered in far less time, there is a tendency to fill the remaining time on off-topic discussions. That just makes a bad situation worse.

Ralph 30 Jun 06

Point is well taken, but that’s some disingenuous math. If it’s 10 hours of productivity time, it’s 10 hours of meeting time.

Mike Swimm 30 Jun 06

You are of course assuming that the 10-15 hours of “opportunity time” is being spent effectively.

What is the cost of a team working for a solid week on something that doesn’t end up coming together because of poor communication when a one hour meeting could have made sure everyone was on the same page?

Honestly I have witnessed a lot more of that in my day than the infamous time wasting meetings that we see in commercials and read about on this site.

Steve R. 30 Jun 06

OK, I am in the ‘anti-meeting’ camp, but there is a point past which analysis of ‘non-productive time’ is meaningless. A one-hour meeting may be annoying and largely useless, but trying to actually assign dollar values to the loss is an excercise in futility - and a further waste of time.

Opportunity cost calculations work great with alternatives where values are known and measurable - this stock versus that, for example - but how does one compare ‘thinking and problem solving alone in the zone versus having an in-depth conversation with one of my brilliant, inspired coworkers’ ?

Leave it at, “they should be avoided if at all possible” and leave the rest well enough alone. Smart people will figure it out and stupid ones, well, avoid them if at all possible.

Steve R. 30 Jun 06

OK, I am in the ‘anti-meeting’ camp, but there is a point past which analysis of ‘non-productive time’ is meaningless. A one-hour meeting may be annoying and largely useless, but trying to actually assign dollar values to the loss is an excercise in futility - and a further waste of time.

Opportunity cost calculations work great with alternatives where values are known and measurable - this stock versus that, for example - but how does one compare ‘thinking and problem solving alone in the zone versus having an in-depth conversation with one of my brilliant, inspired coworkers’ ?

Leave it at, “they should be avoided if at all possible” and leave the rest well enough alone. Smart people will figure it out and stupid ones, well, avoid them if at all possible.

Steve R. 30 Jun 06

Apologies for the dupe post. User error 100%.

Fresh Mike 30 Jun 06

Only 1% of the meetings we have at FreshBooks include everyone (i.e. all six of us)…infact I’d say less than one percent…the rest usually involve only two or three people - max.

You don’t need everyone at every meeting…that is a huge mistake small companies can make - they “try to include everybody” all the time. Don’t do your team any favours…chances are they would rather be at their desk working on whatever project they are working anyway…let them get to it and stay at it.

The ONLY meetings that we invite everyone to are long term DIRECTIONAL MEETINGS…the “here is the vision” meetings…we have those once every 3-6 months…seriously…if you think you need more meetings with everyone together at one time…burning the clock…I’ll bet you’re wrong. Nice post.

Anonymous Coward 30 Jun 06

You guys seem to chat in Campfire all the time (based on your “fly on the wall” posts) — maybe you’d be more productive if you met face to face…

JF 30 Jun 06

You guys seem to chat in Campfire all the time (based on your “fly on the wall” posts) — maybe you’d be more productive if you met face to face…

We’d be a lot less productive.

Dave Mohrman 30 Jun 06

Given your feelings about the true cost of meetings in regards to effective use of time, energy and resources, how would you handle meetings in a more formal environment where parlimentary procedure is the expected norm.

I ask this because I am a newly elected President of a Union local and there are a LOT of meetings. I’m trying to figure out how much of this crap is really necessary and then what to do about it to streamline the process. (I’m considering using the services 37 Signals offers, but I have to see how receptive folks are to change in this direction.)

Many of our executive meetings use parlimentary procedure (Robert’s Rules of Order) as the means to control and standardize the process and particlularly when voting on issues. But it occurs to me that other than that this is still a meeting like any other I’ve been in but with an extra layer of formal B.S. to deal with.

I’d rather not have the discussion divert to rants or flames for or against Unions here - that’s not the topic under discussion - I’m just interested in thoughts or suggestions for innovative and alternative processes, and to bring a different point of view because most of you probibly don’t deal with that formal of a process and are referring to the average business meeting.

Thanks!

Dennis Bullock 30 Jun 06

Amen to that. I was pulled into one today that was a quick “15 Minutes” and 90 minutes later I came out with the rest of my planned day shot.

Gene 30 Jun 06

What are you talking about man? Is no one running the meeting? Does this apply to sales meetings? Or do you not do “that” anymore?

There is one thing i’ve found working in the web development/programming world and that is that folks like us are moving farther and farther away from real, face-to-face, human interaction. We send emails and IMs rather than a phone call, chat rooms and campfire sessions instead of meetings around a table over a cup of coffee… Is it a “human” aversion or a “meeting” aversion we are talking about here?

Matt 01 Jul 06

While I agree many meetings are a complete waste of time, the only way for an extremely busy person (an executive in a large company, for example) to have all of the conversations necessary in a day is to schedule them in the form of meetings.

Often the only way to coordinate the schedules of a group of busy people is a planned meeting.

Finally, meetings — used sparsely — serve a valuable social function at the office, helping to build relationships among team members. It is possible to have a one hour meeting with other smart passionate people where progress is made, learning occurs and people leave excited (and in some cases inspired).

reid 01 Jul 06

Let’s take the example you used of 10 people for a one hour meeting. That’s 10 out of 80 hours, which isn’t that much. Let’s say those 10 hours are evenly divided between 4 productive hours and 4 non productive hours (as one commenter suggests), and you still get the same ratio, 12.5% of a participant’s productive day.

What percentage chance do you need to improve things for that 12.5% to be well invested? 10%? 50%? 80%?

Say you have a 10% chance of brainstorming something new and interesting, or maybe a 30% chance of really improving a group’s working relationship. That’s a risk a lot of organizations would be willing to take.

If you insist on the 80% chance, I’d argue that you’re not taking enough risks.

will 01 Jul 06

strongly agree that most meetings could take place in an email, er campfire, but the productivity math is a little smoke and mirrors, much like most business numbers. 1 hour meeting for one person is 1/40th of their work week. 1 hour meeting for a ten person team is 1/40th of their work week. Presumably the point of the meeting is to make the remaining 39/40ths more productive. An easy choice - if it really did make the remaining 39ths more productive.

I still dont think meeting (v) is the problem. It’s the meetings (n) themselves that are a problem. little point, poor leadership.

will 01 Jul 06

I realized that ‘smoke and mirrors’ connotes some sort of intentional skewing/hiding, which I dont think you were doing. I’m sorry for that. What I meant was ‘you could add the numbers up a different way’.

Mark 01 Jul 06

What I’ve experienced is that the meeting themselves aren’t usually “toxic”, but rather it’s the inevitable follow-up discussions that occur after meeting, when the project managers and other owners / executives are gone.

Those are usually nothing more than the previous hour parroted back in worker slang, and they can last at least an hour, if not the rest of the day.

Chris 01 Jul 06

I disagree, based on over 20 year’s experience in IT across several Fortune 500 companies. Of course, we didn’t have all the cool online collaborative tools we do now - so collaboration had to be done face-to-face, and there’s still no complete substitute for that. I have worked at places were I spent 4-6 hours a day in meetings, and those were the places that things got done and projects got finished because two heads (or seven) are better than one. On the other hand, places where meetings were discouraged and people spent the day entrenched in their offices were the ones that suffered from bad communication and poor performance. I used to plead after 30+ emails between six people to just for the love of God MEET and sort things out.

M.e. 01 Jul 06

Our band meets at the pub on non rehearsal days. Sometimes the meetings last for three or more ours. That’s 12 man hours of quality bonding time that doesn’t interfere with rehearsals and lets us get all of our baggage out on the table. We are going on our sixth year of doubling our financial growth. There is no such thing as a one hour meeting, but not all “meetings” have to be about horribly boring things.

Ben Combee 02 Jul 06

One thing I see from this post that hasn’t been brought up — If you need a meeting, it’s probably best to schedule it early in the work day so you have the best chance of not interrupting anyone’s workflow. If you come in, meet, then get to work you’re doing much better than having a big meeting interruption distributing what you’re doing.

ian 03 Jul 06

In theory you have a point, but in practice I seriously question your approach. Meetings form an essential part of the communication process. It is one of the few opportunities we get to openly collaborate, speak our minds and hear what others have to say. Yes, this can be done electronically, but it’s not quite the same. To look someone in the eye and to see and hear how we express ourselves, gives us a much better understanding of who we are and how we deal with issues. I would rather spend 10 hrs resolving something important than 1hr assuming the message has been communicated and run the risk of poor delivery because of a misunderstanding, which is greatly reduced when someone or a group of individuals commit to something in the presence of their colleagues.

Having been in the communications industry for over 20 years, I am beginning to form the opinion that a lot of techies would rather shy away from real human interaction because of their inability to engage socially, which I have empathy for, but fail to see why we have to work in a social vacuum!

Grow up and face the real world!

Why do you think there are wars…people simply can’t deal with their own inner conflicts, so they project them onto others.

Phil 03 Jul 06

Right on Ian! There are so many posts like this in the tech world, where getting interupted by not having absolute silence or meeting for 2 hours is the absolute worst work environment ever. We are not robots, who cares about 100% productivity? Both from an employee and a business owner point of vue, I’d rather have some in-person social interaction every now and then. It’s much more difficult to misinterpret someone’s intentions when they are talking to you face-to-face. I’ve seen many conflicts arise simply from the “tone” of someone’s email, or someone being “rude” on the phone. Often it comes out at meetings that someone has been working real hard on some problem that another team member had a solution for in 2 minutes…that kind of thing just doesn’t come up over email.

There is some happy mid-ground between the corporate 6 hour long meetings to plan meetings to plan planning meetings and the “this meeting has hit 45 min…freak out!!!” attitude.

Aggie 04 Jul 06

As a design agency startup we have to have meetings simply becasue some of the topics involve free associated thinking, meaning from the gut. What I agree with and one of the reasons why I left corporate life was unnecessary and time wasting blackhole that is the typical workplace meeting. We limited our small group to a one hour a week same time meeting where an agenda is passed out and we go through the items one by one. If anyone gets the meeting off track all one person has to say is “tomato”. It’s a verbal placemaker that we are off track and to remind us that time is money and this is not the place for diversions (that’s what the long lunch is for). Everything else we communicate is either one to one or by Basecamp.

George. 05 Jul 06

So invite 60 people to a 1 minute meeting and this thread is done!

xian 05 Jul 06

You should check out Bernie De Koven’s meeting clock. You program in every attendees’ hourly rate and then watch the cost of the meeting mount as the minutes flow by.

river 06 Jul 06

Well, if it takes one hour X amount of participants to get something working, then it’s worth it. Beacuse if you start calculate the damages if something is done incorrect during one day X amount of people doing it wrong + the time it takes to amend it + the time it takes to inform about the correct procedures you will see that it is cheaper to hold the meeting in the first place… Pure HR economics (unfortunatley most economists do not study this…)

river 06 Jul 06

Well, if it takes one hour X amount of participants to get something working, then it’s worth it. Beacuse if you start calculate the damages if something is done incorrect during one day X amount of people doing it wrong + the time it takes to amend it + the time it takes to inform about the correct procedures you will see that it is cheaper to hold the meeting in the first place… Pure HR economics (unfortunatley most economists do not study this…)

hombrelobo 06 Jul 06

So the best is sitting in our desks and work on the PC ? Is that really productivity ? Iterating with people is not productive ? mmmm

Peeta 06 Jul 06

It’s also not productive that we are all reading blogs such as this, but such is life. As was most likely stated before, communication is a big problem sometimes in large companies and therefore getting ppl together so they can understand things better makes for a more efficient workforce.

I could be in a meeting for an hour on Monday and learned that we have the ability to do X. If I weren’t in the meeting on Monday and I needed to do X on Tuesday I may just start doing work that has already been done by my company.

There are also efficiencies when you have meetings with ppl outside of your own little workgroup. It keeps the stress between groups down, especially when the natural tendency of each workgroup is to despise the other.

Jason 06 Jul 06

I’m glad someone finally gets it!!! The worst are the meetings where a ton of people are involved to discuss a problem that in actuallity costs less than the attendees in the meeting.

CBohanna 07 Jul 06

Great post Jason and interesting comments.
I reckon meetings can be constructive but need to not just have an agenda but an agreed time restriction on each topic that is all moderated.
A weekly one hour meeting that I attend consistently develops into a series off conversations that could (and should) be taken offline.
Organization and management of information and time are some of the elements that need to be considered when calling a meeting.
Don’t just meet for the sake of meeting ‘because we always meet on Thursday’. Let it go!
Cheers
Colin

Randy Weber 10 Jul 06

This should be required reading for everyone in corporate America. In my business development role I’ve operated under this philosophy for years without even knowing it. How? - by not having the obligatory meeting with everyone that wants to do business with the company. Many peers will allow anyone that asks the opportunity to come to the office to make a pitch. This inevitably leads to their boss and their peers attending as well. The opportunity should be researched one-on-one online or on the phone to determine whether or not it makes sense to have a meeting to investigate the pitch further. This respects all parties’ time.

Matt (UK) 11 Jul 06

When I worked for a large ISP a few years back I tried changing the meeting ethos from ‘whats the agenda?’ to ‘whats the objective?’. The idea being that the meeting exists for the purpose of acheiving A (and possibly B and C too) but not for anything else and definately not for Any Other Business. Other stuff belongs in another meeting.

Whenever anyone invited me to a meeting I instead of asking for the agenda I would ask for the objective or desired outcome.

It doesnt always work.

LT 13 Jul 06

I agree that not all meetings are productive and we have to exercise good old judgment when scheduling them.

However, I agree with some of the comments that IT people do avoid human interaction as much as they can. Even when the meeting is inevitable, they will try to work around it. For instance, I have worked with geographically dispersed groups, so most people would have to join a meeting via phone; knowing the teleconference number, folks who sit two cubes away from the meeting room would dial in, instead of meeting face to face.

Here’s a quote to consider before we condemn meetings and assume that technology (e-mail, phone, whatever) always makes us more productive: “One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.” Not to mention that communication via e-mail is very difficult because people either don’t read them or don’t pay attention to anything past the first paragraph.

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